Possibly one of the most spiritually damaging traits – particularly for scholars, shaykhs, preachers and teachers – is the culture of self promotion and of not passing matters on to those more learned or spiritually rooted. That such a tendency has now been normalised doesn’t speak to our savviness or sophistication, but to our sickness.
Islamic groups and organisations will do this due to hizbiyyah – ‘partisanship’, ‘bigotry’ and gaining their share of the limelight, or because of the revenue loss it could entail if their own speakers are not the public’s port of call. Individuals will usually succumb to this out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame and status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons.
Consider Imam al-Ghazali’s words: ‘How many an act has man troubled himself with, thinking it to be sincerely seeking the Face of Allah. Yet it contains deception, the harm of which he cannot see … Those subjected most severely to this trial (fitnah) are the scholars. Most of them are motivated to profess knowledge for the mere pleasure of [their] mastery, the joy of [gaining] a following, or of being lauded and eulogised.’1
He then offers this example: ‘Thus you see a preacher who advises people about Allah and counsels rulers. He is overjoyed at people’s acceptance of him and his utterances. He claims to rejoice in having been chosen to help the religion. But should one of his peers who preaches better than he appear, and people turn away from him, accepting the other, it would displease and distress him. Had religion been his true motive, he would have thanked Allah for having spared him this weighty [duty] through another.’2
It would be unwise of us to feel confident that we are free of such a malady. And yet rida ‘an al-nafs – being ‘self-satisfied’, or feeling smug about oneself; one’s knowledge; or one’s accomplishments, is the spiritual poison many of us seem content to inhale, despite it choking to death our spiritual life. Sincere and genuine repentance is the only healing balm, and serious spiritual introspection about our motives or intentions the only course of action.
Compare today’s culture of self-promotion with the attitudes of our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in the path of knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted and well-travelled. Indeed, even well-travelled ones would frantically avoid giving fatwas when possible, if they could pass the buck on to someone else.
Ibn Abi Layla, a famous tabi‘i, said: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved that his brother would suffice him [by answering].’3
In another narration: ‘… Whenever one of them was asked about an issue, he would refer it on to another, and this other would refer it on to yet another; until it would return back to the first person.’4
Al-Bara’ said: ‘I met three hundred of the people of Badr. There wasn’t any among them, except that he wished that his companion would suffice him by [giving] the fatwa.’5
And Bishr al-Hafi said: an ahabba an yus’ala fa laysa bi ahli an yus’al – ‘Whoever loves to be asked isn’t from those who should be asked.’6
The sirah of the Prophet ﷺ, and the hagiographies of the awliya and leading imams teach us that the believer is one who has deep humility, is unassuming in terms of the good Allah honours them to do, and is self-deprecating – not in some outward Victorian sense, but from sincere inward realisation of what they are not. But such virtues are antithetical to our age, which demands that we sell ourselves, and over magnify our ‘talents’ so as to promote our selves, and not delve too much into the question of intentions. And the truth of the matter is that Muslim organisations and individuals have not been immune to this regrettable self promotion and commodification of the ummah. Nor has enough be done to tackle this spiritual morass.
We ask Allah for safety, sincerity and grace; and we ask, too, that He help us be sincere to Allah’s servants and point them to those better suited to be sacred shepherds.
1. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 9:70-71.
2. ibid., 9:71. I based my translation of these passages on A. Shaker (trans.), al-Ghazali, Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 62.
3. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.
4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.
5. Al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), no.1076.
This article revolves around three questions: (1) Does translating din as ‘religion’ imply that it is only a private matter, having nothing at all to do with the public sphere – which is what people usually associate with the term religion? (2) If iman is translated as ‘faith’, does that not suggest it is ‘blind faith’ – which, again, is what many people think when they hear the word ‘faith’; that it is belief without evidence? (3) And what is the type of nazr -“reasoned reflection” – that the Qur’an constantly urges us with, so that people do not have blind faith in God or in the Qur’an?
Back in 2013, I wrote that the theologically correct term for a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim is a ‘convert’, not a ‘revert’! After all, the Prophet ﷺ, whilst informing us that all people are born on the fitrah (predisposing them to the message of tawhid and Islam), he never actually said to those who became Muslim that, ‘You have re-entered Islam’, or ‘You have become Muslim again’. In other words, you have reverted. Instead, his call to people was simply: aslim – ‘enter into Islam,’ ‘submit,’ ‘become a Muslim’.1 He never asked them to ‘re-enter’ Islam; to revert! Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him, when he said: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’2 Again, he didn’t say: since the time ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘reverted back to Islam.’
In the end I said that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there’s room in the language for both words: convert and revert (even if the first is theologically correct, and the other is not; and even if it’s the ‘revert posse’ that usually gets all agitated about it). Perhaps it’s just a case of a storm in a teacup?
Here I’ll interrogate two more Islamic terms which, if translated inaccurately or poorly, can lead to great obfuscation or significantly alter the sense of the word. Of course, there are some words which, no matter how painstakingly a translator attempts to render them into good, appropriate English, much will still be lost in translation:
1 – The first one is din. Often translated as ‘religion’, though many Muslims feel that this is a rather inadequate rendering of the word, and that ‘way of life’ would be more in keeping with the inclusiveness the word implies.
In classical Arabic, din means jaza’ – ‘recompense’ or ‘requital’ for acts done. It can also mean obedience (ta‘ah) and humility (dhillah). Islam as a din, therefore, is to obey Allah and to submit to Him in humility. The origin or etymology of the word din also relates to dayn – ‘debt’. In this reading, din is something we owe God by way of worship and loving submission that is due to Him from us.3 The upshot of this is that Islam as din requires believers to order their affairs so that this submission to God is reflected in every aspect of life; from the personal to the political.
Many say that in its etymology, religion comes from the Latin word religare – ‘to bind.’ In this sense, religion is that relationship which binds us to what is regarded as holy, sacred, divine, or worthy of special reverence. It also relates to the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death.
Given the meaning of din in classical or Quranic Arabic, and the sense that is conveyed by religion in English, religion doesn’t seem such a far-fetched way of rendering the word din into English – if it were not for the following:
Although long in the making, by the twentieth century religion no longer articulated the common social good as it once did. Instead, religion was relegated to the private sphere. This privatisation of faith is now the default assumption when we moderns, at least here in Western Europe, usually speak of religion. Previously, religious expression had been a total one. The Enlightenment’s vision of spheres outside the provenance of religion led to confining religion to a tighter space than it had ever occupied. Some, though, distinguish between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ conceptions of religion. Jonathan Sacks, quoting Ernst Simon, defined as catholic ‘those religions which seek to sanctify all aspects of the life of the individuals and the community – eating, drinking, work, rest, welfare and legislation, love and war.’ ‘Protestant’ religions arose, he says, when significant areas of public life were wrested from religious guidance or authority. ‘Modernity for Jews,’ he writes, ‘meant the protestentisation of a deeply catholic faith.’4 The same may now be said for Islam and Muslims.
The question of whether liberal modernity can accept Religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould is, despite its commitment to an alleged religious tolerance, one that it has yet to clearly answer. Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right; the duty, even, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated; or reduced to a toothless tigers; or swiftly be branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order? Religion often involves living life on a wing and a prayer.
To conclude: It might not be necessary to go on an all out campaign against ‘religion’ as a translation for din. But we may have to spell out its ‘catholic’ undercurrents whenever we Muslims guardedly choose to employ it.
2 – The other problematic term is ‘faith’ as a translation for iman. Here, whatever else any Muslim theologian (or even a Christian one, for that matter) intends by the word, faith is now deemed by many to be something ill-founded, irrational, against the evidence; even. Spearheading this charge is Richard Dawkins who insists that ‘religious faith … does not depend on rational justification.’5 In fact, ‘Faith’, he states, ‘requires no justification and brooks no argument.’6 The prevalent mood today is that science is about facts and proof, while religion is about mere opinion or faith – by which is meant: credulity; an inclination to believe without sufficient evidence.
So what is the Islamic definition of iman? And how much does it tally up with the idea of faith? And is faith itself something unreasonable, or devoid of reasonable evidence? Let’s briefly go through them one at a time:
Lexically, iman means tasdiq – to ‘affirm’ or ‘attest to’ the truth, reality or correctness of something. Technically, iman is to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent with, in terms of revelation and religion. Iman, therefore, is a state in which the heart accepts God’s truth and lives by it. Although theologians have differed over the exact link, mainstream Islamic theology, nevertheless, confirms that iman involves an unmistakable correlation between inner beliefs of the heart and outer actions of the limbs.7 Moreover, the deeper and profounder the iman, the greater is the sense of aman – the inner ‘peace’ and ‘security’ gifted by God. Leaving aside its link to actions, it might appear that iman is no different to the current picture of faith as unsubstantiated belief (as per New Atheism’s novel, but reductionist definition), were it not for the following:
The Qur’an says, describing one of the many traumatic laments that those who rejected Islam will have with one another in the Afterlife: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [Q.67:10] Anyone who has read the Qur’an, even in a cursory manner, will not have failed to notice its repetitive instance to think, reflect, consider, and use one’s faculty of reason (‘aql): So, for instance, the Qur’an says: Say: ‘I exhort you to one thing: that you awake for God’s sake, in pairs and individually, and then reflect.’ [Q.34:46] So the Qur’an invites people; cajoles them, even, to employ their sense of reason to deliberate over its message: Thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may reason, [Q.2:242], and that they may understand, [Q.6:65]: or that they may reflect, [Q.7:176] So: Will they not reflect? [Q.6:50].
The Qur’an, therefore, doesn’t demand blind faith. Nor does it ask that we accept without some convincing evidence God’s existence or presence in the cosmos. Instead, it asks that we reflect and consider as evidence the nature of the universe and whether it points to an atheistic understanding of the universe by cosmic fluke, or to the existence of a Designer-God who intended for sentient life to emerge in the universe? Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those of intelligence. [Q.3:190] Taking a look at the world or at the larger universe, has led many people to conclude that there must be an intelligent, purposeful creator behind it all. This Creator, sound reasoning can tell us, must be eternal; without cause; but is the uncaused cause of all things. The very existence of our universe rather than an eternal nothingness (i.e. that there is something rather than nothing); the emergence of complex, sentient life; let alone the fine tuning of the universe – these offer proof for the existence of a Creator-God. Many scientists, from Newton to Einstein, or John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins in contemporary times, see these aspects of the universe as evidence of a designer. So to claim, as Dawkins and his ilk do, that theistic Religion isn’t rooted in any rational, reason-based evidence is being disingenuous. It’s just not true! For a believer, the entire cosmos is full of shawahid, witnesses, to the awe and splendour of the Divine Existence.
If using our senses and reason to consider the nature of the universe yields some general understanding about God, it is the Qur’an where the rich details are to be found of an All-Merciful, Beneficent God with whom we can seek closeness and loving intimacy. And just as Islam doesn’t require blind faith in God, the Qur’an itself insists that it be interrogated to see if it is really the Word of God: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than God, they would have found therein many contradictions. [Q.4:82] Do they claim: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [Q.52:33-34]
So nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of it or its fundamental theological tenets. Rather, it insists that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a ‘leap of faith’, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too. Indeed, mainstream Sunni theology has honoured this quest for reason-based faith when it says: tajibu ma‘rifatu’Llah ta‘ala shar‘an bi’l-nazr fi’l-wujud wa’l-mawjud ‘ala kulli mukallaf qadir – ‘It is a religious requirement upon ever sane person of legal capacity to know God through reflection upon existents and creation.’8 And while Sunni theology settled on accepting as valid iman that has not come about via nazr, but through taqlid; imitation, the thrust of Islam’s theological project – in order to shake off doubt (shakk) or any skepticism (shubhah) – is towards reflection, reasonable consideration and intelligent inquisitiveness.
The requirement to reflect (nazr) is a casual, general one for those who can only do so in broad outlines, and detailed for those who have the ability to get into the more nitty-gritty stuff. A modern education should allow most people to fall somewhere in the middle. And whilst for some lay Muslims, this theological insistence on nazr is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the principle, nonetheless, remains. If it is not nazr upon the cosmos and the nature of the created order, then the believer is expected to employ such nazr to the Qur’an’s truth claim; or to the profundity, simplicity, honesty and integrity of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ; or for those who lived during or close to the prophetic age, the Muhammadan miracles that have either been witnessed, or mass transmitted, or reliably heard. Whatever the case, faith is to be based on nazr and the conviction (yaqin) it yields. As for recognising God through the fitrah; one’s innate disposition, then given that the modern world has so radically and literally altered our thinking patterns, habits of the heart, and how we intuit and perceive things, it would be unwise to use that as an excuse not to engage in some level of nazr.
To wind-up: The idea that in Islam one is expected to have ‘blind faith’ doesn’t tally with the revealed texts or the mainstream theological teachings. The challenge for Dawkins et al. is to engage the actual arguments from theistic theology; not a strawman of their own creation. As for the word faith (or belief) as a translation for iman, despite its drawbacks or misrepresentations, I’m not sure what else could be used as a suitable replacement?
1. See: Al-Bukhari, no.1356.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.
3. See: al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 321; and al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:120-21.
4. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005), 4.
5. The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2008), 31.
Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?
A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.
I. ISLAM & RACISM
Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant common descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]
The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1
In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]
The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.
Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4
II. MODERNITY & RACISM
In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.
Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’
The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.
III. BRITAIN & RACISM
Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.
The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do; and we Muslims are fast becoming the new Jews (or even the new Blacks).
Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.
It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.
Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.
Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5
For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.
For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!
Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.
To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.
IV. MUSLIMS & RACISM
Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.
We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.
But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders. It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.
Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakh; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?
Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.
So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.
Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?
V. BLM & RACISM
The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.
The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?
But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!
Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.
In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.
2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.
3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.
4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.
Often rendered into English as ‘theology’, ‘ilm al-kalam (or kalam, for short) is the science which establishes and elaborates upon matters of doctrine and belief. Because it depends upon reason-based arguments, it is ‘discursive’: hence ‘ilm al-kalam is sometimes referred to as discursive theology. In its more conjectural or philosophical form – a form where it does not play a supportive role to the textual-based conclusions of the Islamic Revelation, but rather infers positions from its own first principles – ‘ilm al-kalam is often referred to as speculative theology. As for those theologians who are practitioners of kalam, they are called mutakallimun.
This article seeks to address four core issues:  The position of kalam in Sunni Islam;  the Hanbali position[s] concerning it;  its pros, cons and true purpose;  its relevance, if any, in today’s intellectually, faith challenging milieu – especially in terms of being able to offer cogent, articulate, Islamically-grounded responses to atheism and scientism.
1.Kalam (lit. ‘speech’, ‘discourse’) about God, using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments, found its way into early Muslim thought during the Abbasid period, via Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical legacy; particularly that of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring this philosophical reasoning to bear upon certain theological issues was the Mu‘tazilah. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – that is, to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, on certain theological matters to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. They were known to dismiss, distort or play fast and loose with verses from Revelation or prophetic hadiths, if these didn’t fit in with their Greek-inspired philosophical rationalisations.
2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from such kalam, usually with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous or, according to another reading, close to unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i stated: ‘We are not people of kalam.‘1 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; for the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’2 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’3 As for Imam Ahmad, his words on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’4 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’5 This latter saying of Imam Ahmad suggests there was some sort of Sunni kalam in vogue, as opposed to the widespread Mu‘tazilite one that the like of the above salaf-reports were apparently addressing, and that ostensibly he seemed to reject even that.
3. In contrast to a large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them which state that kalam is lawful, so long as it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and ijma‘ of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify, or twist them. From them is this saying from al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’6 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’7
4. Imam al-Bayhaqi also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam, for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; and as we have already mentioned.’8
5. The distinction between blameworthy and praiseworthy kalam began to gain traction among the scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent, primarily from the more purist, fideistic Hanbalis/Salafis. This approach ranged from an overall rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.9
6.Those who employed ‘ilm al-kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun stated about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by using rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’10 Of course, even from the pro-kalam viewpoint, there were always individuals who went into excess concerning it, or who sometimes simply lost the actual plot!
7. In asserting what he considered to be the middle ground on the issue of ‘ilm al-kalam, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about it:‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11
8. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the full story. Whilst there is an absolutist, anti-kalam stance amongst Hanbalis, the historical truth of the matter is that there is a pro-kalam stance too. The anti-kalam sentiment is best exemplified by Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, a pillar of the madhhab, who wrote a scathing tract against delving into any sort of kalam, rebutting the Hanbali polymath Ibn ‘Aqil for having done so. In it he wrote, with the usual characteristic hostility of a purist against kalam: ‘As for him [i.e. Ibn ‘Aqil], his faction consist of the people of kalam. To speak of them is only to censure them, to warn against them, to cause [people] to flee from associating with them, to order abandoning and shunning them, and to abandon looking into their books.’ He then cites Imam Ahmad, al-Shafi‘i and Abu Yusuf in their rebuke of kalam and then he wrote: ‘And Ahmad b. Ishaq al-Maliki declared: “The people of innovations and [false] desires, in the view of our [Maliki] colleagues, are the people of kalam. So every person of kalam is from the followers of false desires and innovations, be he an Ash‘ari, or not. No testimony of his should be accepted. He should be ostracised and punished for his innovation. And if he persists in it, his repentance should be sought.’12 This anti-kalam stance holds that there simply isn’t anything reliable or decisive from Imam Ahmad on the issue to render lawful the deployment of kalam.
9. As for the pro-kalam stance, Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’13
10. Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih quotes Ibn Abi Ya‘la as asserting that ‘the correct stance in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the opinion of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘14 The ‘affair’ being referred to was the inquisition unleashed against those upon the orthodox belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated Word of God, and his ‘defence’ of it was by using rational-based arguments; in other words, kalam.
11. Now whether Imam Ahmad’s later words abrogate his earlier ones, or whether it’s just a case of contextualising the Imam’s words, is an area of disagreement among pro-kalam Hanbalis. For while a group of them, such as Ibn Abi Ya‘la, held to the view of abrogation, others held to the more preferable view of jam‘; harmonisation. This is the stance which holds that Imam Ahmad employed kalam arguments when he believed there was a need, and refrained from it when he believed there wasn’t. Having cited the above words of Ibn Hamdan, al-Buhuti notes: ‘The statement of Ibn Hamdan is like a harmonisation between the two views [of forbiddance or allowance]; and this is preferable over abrogation. What supports this is the report from al-Marrudhi [that Imam Ahmad said]: “I am not a person of kalam. I do not view kalam in anything except if it be in the Book of Allah, the Hadith of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, or from any of his companions; may Allah be pleased with them, or one of the tabi‘un. As for other than these, then speech concerning it is not praiseworthy.” Related by al-Khallal.’15 In other words, whatever stands in opposition to the conclusions of the Book, the Sunnah, or a salaf-report, even if it appears to be rationally justifiable, is blameworthy.
12. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, his take on kalam and its nomenclature, as involved and highly complicated as it is, is most likely best represented in this passage from him: ‘The point being is that Ahmad would infer by way of rational proofs about propositions concerning Divinity, provided they were sound. What he censured was whatever opposed the Book or Sunnah, speech without knowledge, or speech [with] innovated meanings in the religion (al-kalam al-mubtadi‘ fi’l-din) … He [i.e. Imam Ahmad] was not averse to – if the meanings of the Book or the Sunnah were known – leaving [textual] terms for other terminologies, if a need for this presented itself. In fact, he did this himself. Rather, what he despised were innovated meanings (al-ma‘ani al-mubtadi‘ah) in this – i.e. in [theological issues] people were arguing about, such as [the nature of] the Qur’an; the Beatific Vision, Pre-Destiny or the Divine Attributes – except what conforms to the Book, the Sunnah, or reports from the sahabah or tabi‘un.‘16 Ibn Taymiyyah’s point is that using kalam terminology is risky. For while the correct sense of the meanings may be established, such terms all too easily lend themselves to notions that are false, ambiguous, or inappropriate for God; or are at odds with established texts or salaf-reports. His main contention appears to be with the kalam conception of hulul al-hawadith – that contingencies do not indwell in the Divine Essence, and how such an ambiguous turn of phrase, whilst perfectly sound from one angle (that nothing created subsists in God and that God’s attributes aren’t created), is used to negate those acts of God he designates as af’al al-ikhtiyariyyah – “God’s chosen acts:” in that God acts, creates and speaks as He wills, whenever He wills.
13. So what conclusion can we draw about the Hanbali school’s view about ‘ilm al-kalam? Well the obvious one is that the school doesn’t have a single, unified stance. The reason is that the various reports concerning Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal’s attitude towards kalam lead to vastly different conclusions. Undoubtedly, there is his clear condemnation of it; and yet there are words from him that permit it. And then there is his al-Radd ‘ala’l-Jahmiyyah, a slim tract refuting certain innovators; not just with textual proofs, but with rational based arguments to support the textual assertions. Taking all of this into consideration, the later leading Hanbali authorities – particularly those whose manuals, commentaries and super commentaries of fiqh have now become the standard, relied-upon texts for teaching and fatwas over the past six hundred years – tended to adopt the view that ‘ilm al-kalam was lawful and legislated. Its role, however, was not as a discoverer of truths, but as a rational support to those axiomatic creedal truths found in Revelation. Ibn Hamdan’s 7th Islamic century Nihayat al-Mubtadi’in fi Usul al-Din has found widespread acceptance among the cream of Hanbali scholars – such as Ibn Muflih, al-Mardawi, al-Hajjawi, al-Buhuti and al-Safarini – and has been authoritatively cited by them. The same hold for its abridgement, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan, by Ibn Balban in the 11th century.17
14. Before discussing how relevant the ‘ilm al-kalam project is for today, let me address its role in the pre-modern Muslim scholastic period, as explained by non other than Imam al-Ghazali. As a sort of epilogue to his Jerusalem Creed, al-Ghazali outlines the pros and cons of kalam, explaining that the Islamic ‘aqidah which Muslims should know is not the same as kalam theology – which is there to support the ‘aqidah and protect it from heresies. He explained: ‘In it there is benefit and harm. As for its benefit, in those situations where it is beneficial it is ruled lawful, recommended or obligatory according to the circumstances. As for its harm, it is forbidden whenever and for whoever it is harmful. Its harms are that it creates doubts and unsettle beliefs, which [then] no longer rest of certitude and resolute conviction. This is something which happens at the outset, and there is no guarantee that he will ever win it back through [rational] proofs; for it differs from person to person. This, then, is its harm to sound beliefs.’18 The believer, yearning above all else to seek the Face of God, will pay this matter much heed.
15. Continuing the theme of kalam’s potential harms, the Imam said: ‘It has another harm, [namely] it hardens the beliefs of the heretics (al-mubtadi‘ah) in their heresy (bid‘ah) and strengthens it in their hearts, in that it riles them up and increases their resolve to persist in it. Such harm, however, arises from bigotry born of argumentation. This is why you see the ordinary, unlearned heretic (al-mubtadi‘a al-‘ammi) quickly dissuaded from his belief through gentleness, unless he has been raised in a place where argumentation or zealotry are rife; in which case if all mankind, from the first to the last, united together to remove it from his heart, they would be unable to. For desire, zealotry and contempt for his rivals or opponents so grip his heart, and thus blinds him to the truth … Such is the fatal disease that plagues cities and people; the sort of corruption caused by partisan disputation. This also is its harm.’19 In light of that, there’s little we can do save to seek Allah’s refuge from our self-serving egos masquerading as truth-seekers!
16. On the benefits of kalam, the Ghazalian insight may come as a surprise to some: ‘As for its benefit, it might be expected that it is to uncover truths and to know them as they truly are. If only that were so! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably confuses and misguides more than it reveals or teaches. If you had heard this from a hadith scholar or hashawi-literalist, you might have thought: “People are an enemy to what they don’t know.” So hear this instead from one highly versed in kalam; who left it after gaining mastery of it; who plunged its depths as far as any theologian can; who then went onto immerse himself in other sciences closely related to kalam, before realising that the path to the realities of gnosis (haqa’iq al-ma‘rifah) was barred from this angle. By my life, kalam theology is not void of revealing, defining or clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about matters that are already evident or that could probably be understood without delving into the art of kalam at all. Rather, it has one single benefit: to guard the common man’s creed that we have just outlined [in the Jerusalem Creed], and protect it by way of argument from the misgivings of heretics. For the common man is weak and can be unsettled by a heretic’s argument, even if corrupt. Yet something corrupt may be rebutted with something [less] corrupt; whereas people are only responsible for the creed we have previously outlined.’20
17. In Muslim Spain, some two centuries after al-Ghazali, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi (a celebrated Maliki jurist, legalist and exegist) felt that he could speak to the role of kalam theology in these terms: ‘As for the heretics, their words mustn’t be related, nor are their arguments to be rehearsed: unless their is a need for it. In which case, one may occupy themselves with rebutting them, just as ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas did when the matter of the Khawarij began to spread. This is what called the leading mutakallimun, such as Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Abu Bakr b. al-Tayyib, and others; may God have mercy upon them, to speak about this when the various heretical sects arouse in their time. But as for our age, God has relieved us of this duty since they [the heretical sects] do not exist; especially in the lands of West Africa and Andalusia. Hence in our time, their views should not be turned to, nor made to cross any heart or ear, because it is harmful, and without any benefit. For the potential benefits of refuting them is meaningless in their absence. For the harms it contains, of falling into the forbidden, opposing the salaf, or darkening the heart, are all present and possible for whoever concerns himself with it.’21 Or to put it another way, Ibn Juzayy is insisting that kalam theology is a medicine that must be administered at the right time, and in the right dosage. In the absence of an illness, there simply is no need to administer a remedy. To do so would be pointless; more than that, might it not actually create an illness where there was none before? What is also worth remembering is that while discursive arguments no doubt have their place, sometimes one just needs to listen to the inner voice of conscience or fitrah in terms of intuiting or feeling the presence of God.
18. This brings us nicely on to our final concern: Does kalam theology have any relevance today? And if so, what? Well obviously we live in an age where false beliefs and heresies abound everywhere, and most Muslims are exposed to them from a very early age. Islands of Andalusian cocoons that Ibn Juzayy spoke of no longer exist. There isn’t a meaningful place called “the Muslim world;” and if there is, it has been so diluted and distorted with alien ideas, ideologies and attitudes so as to render the very idea defunct. Of course, there are individual Muslim minds and hearts that mostly reside in majority Muslim countries and societies. But even if such societies did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, they have been far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on. And this is the deeper concern for any continued, authentic sense of Muslimness. As for Muslims living in the West, in one sense, their faith-based dilemmas are acuter still. And so it must be that every Muslim should acquaint themselves with the sound Islamic creed or ‘aqidah; the correct set of Islamic beliefs each Muslim is mandated by the religion to know and to hold. To assume that just because one is Muslim, that one already knows all this stuff will, in all likelihood, be a blunder of seismic proportion!
19. The best way to do the above is through an intelligent and informed manner. And this is by either embarking upon a very short study of an authoritative ‘aqidah text which has met with continued scholarly approval throughout the centuries, or by reading such an ‘aqidah text by oneself, asking a qualified scholar for any further clarifications one may have. The objective isn’t to become a fully-fledged theologian, or to dive into debates and disputations with other Muslims. But rather to meet our Lord and Maker with sound belief concerning God, His prophets, scripture, pre-decree and faith. The Jerusalem Creed has already been mentioned. An even more accepted text, for layman and scholar alike, is the Tahawiyyah Creed. The idea is to keep it short and simple so as to know as a minimum the beliefs one is personally obliged to know. One just revisits or revises this creed on a yearly basis, in order to keep it all intact or dust any cobwebs off.
20. One highly relevant thing to come out of the kalam project, and of theology in general, is that ‘aqidah has three levels. There’s what can be called [i]Essential ‘aqidah:These are beliefs that are the dividing line between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); beliefs that are indispensable to hold, as well as beliefs one cannot possibly hold, so as to be Muslim. Such beliefs come under the rubric of: al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – ‘things that are known by necessity to be part of the [Islamic] religion’; and about which – unless one is a recent convert, or a Muslim raised outside a Muslim family or society – ignorance brooks no excuse. [ii]Orthodox ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that form a boundary between rightly-guided orthodoxy, and heresy; beliefs that, when one comes to reliably know of them, one is required to accept it. Prior to that, one may be excused for not knowing them. One who rejects such a belief, due to the knowledge not being clear to him, or inaccessible to him, or because it is something beyond what one is reasonably expected to understand, yet he stills holds to Islam’s essential beliefs, is a Muslim – albeit perhaps a heretical Muslim; but Muslim nonetheless. [iii] Personal ‘aqidah: beliefs that theologians legitimately differ over. Such beliefs, regardless if one holds one view or the other; or refrains from taking a position, has no bearing at all on one’s piety, orthodoxy, or ultimate standing with God.22
21. A greater recognition of such distinctions would bring about greater tolerance among Muslims. Teachers of Islamic theology are duty bound to explain that while orthodoxy is doubtlessly the ‘aqidah of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; i.e. what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues speak to the difference between iman and kufr: the rest are matters which other Muslims may disagree with, yet still remain Muslim. Such was the pious caution of our past Imams, that whilst they would have no problem judging a particular belief to be actual disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs clearly warranted it, they would be extremely cautious to the nth degree about making takfir upon a specific individual who held such a belief. Al-Dhahabi relates by way of al-Bayhaqi; who relates from Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi; that Zahir b. Ahmad al-Sarkhasi said: ‘When death came to Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, in my home in Baghdad, he called me and so I came to him, and he said: “Be my witness, I do not declare anyone a disbeliever who prays towards the qibla. For each directs themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all of this [kalam controversy] is but different expressions.”’ Al-Dhahabi then stated: ‘This is my religious view [too]. So too, our shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, who used to say in his last days: “I do not declare anyone of this ummah to be a disbeliever,” and he would relate that the Prophet ﷺ said: “No one but a believer [faithfully] performs ablution”23 [and then say]: “Thus whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim.”‘24
22. After affirming God’s utter perfection and transcendence above every imperfection or need, where kalam theology really comes into its stride is in furnishing us with proofs for what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin) or impossible (mustahil) for God; especially proofs for the necessary existence of God. In its simplest, bare bone form, the kalam cosmological argument goes like this: [i] All that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence. [ii] The universe began to exist. [iii] Therefore the universe must have a cause for its existence. One can rationally infer from the conclusion to the above syllogism that this Cause must be uncaused; omnipotent; possessed of intelligence, knowledge and volition; different to the stuff of the universe; not subject to the material existence of time or space, and therefore immaterial. In other words, this uncaused Cause is God! Eminent Muslim theologians aside, great rational minds in our time continue to uphold the kalam argument for God’s existence, with great philosophical craft and gusto. The most famed of them being Dr. William Lane Craig who defends it from contemporary criticism in his The Kalam Cosmological Argument. If we add to this kalam assertion, evidence from the fine tuning of the universe; and modern cosmology – as in notable works like Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers, Keith Ward’s God, Chance & Necessity, or John C Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? – there are powerful reasons to believe in the God of Abrahamic monotheism, and that science actually points to theism rather than atheism. Given that in today’s world, atheistic philosophies like naturalism and scientism continue to challenge or erode the essential belief of many Muslims, more than do the heresies of the Mu‘tazilah or the Jahmiyyah, such books are far more relevant and needed for a defence of theism, or to shore up one’s personal faith, than are classical works of kalam theology.
23. Since there are some critiques of the kalam argument’s two premises – that everything that came into existence must have a cause for its existence, and that the universe had a beginning – let’s briefly address them. One objection to the first premise asks: What is the proof that every contingent thing needs a cause? Obviously there’s no directly measurable or observable proof when it comes to the universe’s beginning. It’s not like we can create the event again and then watch it. However, it is a rational first principle that something cannot come from nothing: out of nothing, nothing comes. It is a truth that we rationally intuit if we give it some reasoned thought. Moreover, if something can come into being without a cause, then why doesn’t just anything or everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn’t money, MacBooks or Muhammad Ali pop into being out of nothing? Even quantum particles that appear to pop in and out of existence from nothing, actually come from something: a quantum vacuum that is teeming with virtual particles. Again, as we observe the natural world, we see that things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing. We proceed on the well-observed, empirically established basis that things that begin to exist have causes. This conviction lies at the heart of the scientific method. Without it, one couldn’t or just wouldn’t do science! For if things didn’t have causes, why investigate them or try to connect the dots? The second premise has a lot of solid science behind it, in terms of the expanding universe; the Big Bang; or the microwave background radiation left over from it. Scientists feel, that despite certain gaps in their knowledge, or despite things needing to be ironed out in the overall theory (like the arbitrary inflation of the early cosmos, or justifying the current rate of expansion), they are on reliable grounds about the universe coming into existence after not existing. Thus, since both the premises are valid, the conclusion is true: the universe had a cause which needs explaining. Every other inquiry must play second fiddle to this meta question of cause. So while an atheist will have to find fault with this line of reasoning, it would be absolutely untrue to say that theistic belief, such as Islam’s, has no proof or basis; that it’s all just blind faith!
24. To conclude: As intellectual attacks on Islam increase; as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon; and as ever more people seek answers from Islam for a variety of reasons, there is a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted answers – especially in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy and liveable relevancy. Blind imitation of ethnic Islam will become less relevant to people, and even less capable of fulfilling intellectual and spiritual needs. As for well-written dialectical critiques of modernity’s philosophical premises, assumptions and conclusions; or addressing attacks on religion from scientism or other modern, atheistic philosophies, books that come to mind which are well suited to this task include: Gai Eaton’s King of the Castle, Huston Smith’s Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Jonathan Sack’s The Persistence of Faith and Abdal Hakim Murad’s recent Travelling Home. Such works are required reading for this epic duty, in a way scholastic works from pre-modern times obviously are not.
25. In respect to the traditional goals of kalam theology – defining the content of what is and is not faith, demonstrating its harmony with logic and sound reason, and furnishing arguments to help be personally convinced about it – this is as relevant today as it was in past times. In that spirit and enterprise of classical kalam theology, Muslim theologians in our day and age have a three-fold collective duty (fard kifayah): Firstly,they must continue to establish proofs for the existence of God, in a way that resonates with the contemporary science-shaped mind; using arguments from necessity, design, and fine tuning. Secondly, they must respond to scientism, as it brashly theologises away belief in God, strengthens its totalitarian monopoly on what constitutes knowledge, and elevates presuppositions of naturalism to ultimate truths; without evidential proof. Thirdly, to continue to promote tolerance between Muslims, in terms of what beliefs form the dividing line between belief and disbelief. Let me end with Nuh Keller’s words that ‘one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.’25
And God alone is the Granter of guidance and grace.
1. Quoted in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.
2. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.
3. As per Ibn Qutaybah,Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.
4. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.
5. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.
6. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.
9. The views of the Hanbali scholars, and a birds-eye view of Imam Ahmad’s own stances on ‘ilm al-kalam, is presented in the second section.
10. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.
11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.
12. Tahrim al-Nazr fi Kutub al-Kalam (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutuib, 1990), 41-42.
13. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6.
14. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29.
16. Dar’ Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Saudi Arabia: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 7:155.
17. Ibn Balban’s Qala’id al-‘Iqyan was republished in a fine critical edition (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), with a rich and exhaustive commentary. The commentary cites copiously from the likes of the above Hanbali jurist-theologians on each issue. Moreover, an English translation of the text of the Qala’id, with the accompanying Arabic, is given in: J. Starling (tr.), Qala’id al-Iqyan, n.p. 2020.
18. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:354.
19. ibid., 1:354-55.
20. ibid., 1:355-56.
21. Al-Nur al-Mubin fi Qawa‘id ‘Aqa’id al-Din (Tunis: Dar Imam Ibn ‘Arafah, 2015), 111.
Let me commence with the following: The sixteenth century French essayist and moralist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote in his famous Essays: ‘It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string to tie them together.’ This, I should confess, is what I’ve mainly done here in the following article.
As we Muslims endeavour to navigate the conflicting and faith corroding epistemologies of the secular monoculture, there are a host of micro and macro challenges that confront the religious mind. Some of these contemporary concerns, often the micro masa’il, need fast thinking and rapid responses. Other issues, the macro ones, require macro thinking. Such thinking needs time, reflection, the piecing together of many parts, and setting them in a wider context of meaning. In other words, they demand slow thinking.
While, on the whole, Muslim scholarship must be thanked for its handling of short term, micro issues (the many fatwas, responses and guidance to the Coronavirus pandemic is a good example of this), it has yet to find its stride when it comes to macro issues and long term visions. The current strategy thus far of Western born diaspora Muslims has usually been knee-jerk responses, or simply to fire fight. This must change if we are to thrive, and not just survive a historically unprecedented homogenising of human values by a godless monoculture.
Of course, this does not require that every Muslim scholar must train their academic skill sets towards macro thinking. But it’s probably the case that the more who can do so, the merrier. Nor is it likely to be the case that the majority of scholarly intellects will be suited to macro thinking. For slow, thoughtful, contemplative macro thinking, as with fast, time-constrained micro thinking, is something of an art. Divine providence makes some minds more suited to it than others.
So what are these macro concerns that confront modern Muslimness? Well, they pertain to the bigger questions about God’s agency in the cosmos and the world of matter, and our relationship to Him. They refer to the place or priority of tawhid, Abrahamic monotheism, in a modern world in the grip of angst, ennui and alienation, and of how monotheism can work as humanity’s healing balm. They are about interrogating the deeper intellectual or philosophical forces that have shaped and [de]formed our present. They’re concerned less with the fire fighting issues that come and go as part and parcel of life’s vicissitudes, and more with long term healing and nurturing of the God-given human potential that resides in each one of us. All this is to say, we need less of an atomised, issue-by-issue approach to our modern theological, ethical or fiqhi conundrums, and much more focus on the need to precisely, thoroughly and holistically understand modernity’s meta premises, and how best to redress them; to restore some balance. For if Muslims are to act effectively, and to discern the times they are in clearly and objectively, they must understand what it is that confronts them. In so doing, the following insights and first principles should be kept in the forefront of the engagement:
1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational, inductive or secular methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous exit from modernity’s many contradictions, tyrannies and traumas. And when, as it is wont to do, the monoculture comes around brandishing its sword so as to get us to assent to, say, the universal nature of the Declaration of Human Rights (most of which is relatively unremarkable as ethical declarations go), we could well have little choice but to say – in the interest of fostering peaceful coexistence rather than coercion or conflict: To you, your religion; and to me, mine. [Q.109:6]
2 – While the monoculture still argues about whether it is modern or postmodern, there is no denying that it is a world utterly strange and alien to anything and everything that has come before. It may once have prided itself on being the fruits of a revered Enlightenment rationality. But it now widely holds that we’re guided more by selfish genes, manipulative corporations, and unconscious psychological biases than we ever were, and could be, by reason. And although Man, not God, is still believed to be the measure of all things, it has more and more allowed irrational impulses, not rational thought, to be sovereign over the soul. While it still upholds the Enlightenment’s ideology of human progress, replacing the monotheistic idea of human salvation, whatever good such a progress did birth continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism gnawing away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. The monoculture’s chief value is the inviolable liberty of personal ‘will’ (read: ‘desire’): the right to decide for ourselves what we will/desire to believe, want, own or serve. The will is king, and is constrained by nothing greater than itself. And while in Islam, desires and rights do have their open spaces and green pastures, the Qur’an speaks more so in terms of constraints and duties. Likewise in Islam, though humans are seen as servants or slaves of God, their existence and life is not meant to be slavish. Instead, they are seen as self-determining free agents, endowed with reason and gifted with Revelation, enabling them to pursue ends that are good or beneficial for themselves and for their self-fulfillment. For the monoculture, however, it is choice itself, and not what is chosen, that is the first and greatest good. It believes in the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power, let alone the right, to order our desires towards any higher end. If this is understood, and its consequences even half-perceived, it should come as no surprise that society as a whole is in a tragic grip of ontological loneliness; a descent into nihilism and existential despair.1 For what other than angst, despair and a descent into the worst excesses of unredeemed hedonism could come from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic fluke; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless? Such, then, is modernity’s context: it must never become our excuse – as Dr Sherman Jackson insists.
3 – We, as believers, cannot merely be armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or curse, or be angry; forever raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time, an act at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of in a state of tumaninah; inner calm, then in all likelihood this Agitated Islam is animated by the ego (nafs), not the Spirit (ruh). True religious observance must beget tranquility, even in the midst of turbulence: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28] And: He it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. [Q.48:4] So if not revenge-filled, rage-driven reactions, then what? Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. … Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’2 That is to say, we are to be healers with humbleness. Murad again: ‘The monoculture multiplies matter, and cannot discern spirit; and Islam, the great global dissident, is called upon to heal the consequence.’3 Islam’s monotheism exhorts that we be part of society, yet apart from society; that we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Abrahamic monotheism has always been very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.
4 – The Holy Qur’an frequently speaks about the virtue of service to others. In one place, it extols the believers as those who lived their lives in the service of others: unassumingly, without fanfare, or desire for reward or recognition; rather out of their hearts overflowing with sincere compassion and concern for human welfare: And they fed, for the love of God, the needy, the orphan, and the captive; saying: ‘We feed you for the sake of God. No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.’ [Q.76:8-9] The Qur’an also says: We have honoured the children of Adam. [Q.17:70]. That being so, Islam reckons it as an affront to this God-given dignity of the human person if they are denied life’s basics. Like Islam, secular humanism valorises the human creature too. Unlike Islam, such humanism has done away with God and the sacred and has put the human subject on a deified pedestal. Humanism has done away with service for the love of God, and replaced it with service for the love of man. And concern for human welfare for God’s sake (lit. yearning ‘for the face of God’) has now been secularised and decoupled from as much connection to any divine purpose or traditional morality as possible. For most secular humanists, whatever little Religion does have going for it, ultimately, and on the whole, it is an obstacle to true human self-fulfillment. What now counts for most people, including an increasing number of religious followers, isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be ‘good’ people, and agree to the secular decencies of our age.4 The further people have drifted away from God’s revealed truths, the greater the temptation becomes to water down the truth, glossing over its more rigorous aspects that modern secular sensitivities find unpalatable. So divine Judgement becomes a myth, hell a wicked superstition, prayer less important than decent behaviour, and sins and their upshot less relevant than social activism or caring for others. We Muslims, then, ought to beware of not going down the road that others have unconsciously and unguardedly gone down; mixing sacred values with secular humanistic faith. The prophets of God, peace be upon them, weren’t mere ethicists. Once the prophetic concern is represented as primarily being about welfare, or social justice; rather than with sin, salvation and preparation for eternity, then aren’t feet already on a slippery slope?
5 – Turning to the question of religion and science, what are the bigger, underlying meta precepts that modern science raises against Muslim theology and practice? Well first, let’s recall that science entails the rational examination of evidences: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis from the data; doing experiments to test the ideas; working out a theory to account for the results; then making predictions based on that theory. Two attitudes taint modern science, making it appear science points to atheism rather than to theism: naturalism and scientism. Naturalism – the claim that nature is all that there is, and that there is no supernatural or divine realm – is a philosophy 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 one be so adamant that the natural order is all there is? As for the belief that science is the only path to know objective truth and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, this is known (pejoratively) as Scientism. In many ways, the evidence for it is even more pitifull than for naturalism. And as has been pointed out often enough, 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 is a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Hence, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true! Dawkins has a maxim he is fond of using in this regard (and one he usually aims squarely at theists). He says: ‘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.’5 Yet this maxim is more applicable to him, and to the naturalism and scientism he so aggressively upholds, than it does to the theology of Islam (or Jewish or Christian theology, for that matter).
6 – To be perfectly clear, it’s not a case of micro thinking versus macro thinking. We need both. Just as fiqh issues need detailed fatwas and responses, something similar holds for science-religion concerns too. It is important to have intelligent, scripture-based answers to claims like: ‘natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence’ (Dawkins); or that: the universe came from a quantum vacuum, which is nothing, hence the universe came from nothing (Krauss); and: ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing’ (Hawking). But the meta question of existence is not about how it is that the universe (or human life) came about from causes already internal to it – the fact of the matter is is that a quantum vacuum isn’t nothing, it is something; and laws of physics themselves do not create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls: it is not laws that create or move things; it is an agent or person that does that; and natural selection only occurs with stuff that is already present: for even the simplest of life forms must first of all be – but how it is that anything (including a cause) exists at all. For nothing contingent within the universe (nor even the universe itself) can be rationally conceived as the explanation or source of its own being. A contingent thing’s essence (what it is), fails to account for its existence (that it is). Islamic theology, though, has a rich, coherent intellectual tradition to account for the existence of contingent things (things that, prior to their existence, didn’t exist). Muslim theologians hold that since the universe is contingent, and contingent things aren’t able to generate themselves, that they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha); namely, a deity [God] who is eternal, and whose existence is inseparable from his essence. That is, God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud); and although God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. The meta question, then, is this: Which assumption does science support: atheism or theism? That is, does science – with its question of why there is something instead of nothing, or why the universe is so finely-tuned for the emergence of sentient life – best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, totally 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 know Him, discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and realise His purpose for us? That’s the real meta question.
7 – My last issue in the religion-science arena concerns God’s agency in the universe, and the issue of cause and effect. Some mistakenly believe that God created the cosmos ‘in the beginning’ and it has existed on its own ever since. Merely because there is a universe, or a world full of creatures, there is no rational or scientific guarantee that it will persist for another instance. Rather, God alone directly creates and sustains the universe at each and every instant; it exists and endures only by God’s will and creative act. God, the Creator, is continuously creating. The idea that the universe isn’t a sufficient cause to explain its own presence, and that it must be made present, ab extra, at every point in its duration, leads to the doctrine of Occasionalism. This is the view which states that created things cannot be the cause of events. Instead, all events are taken to be caused directly by God. In other words, nothing that occurs is due to natural causes or the operation of scientific laws, and that apparent causal relations between events simply prompt God with the occasion to see to it that certain acts will usually be followed by others. For no contingent thing has the intrinsic ability to benefit, harm or cause an effect. Only God has such power and ability. This is what is meant by: la hawla wa la quwwata illa bi’Llah – ‘There is no might, nor power, except with God. Hence, according to this mainstream Muslim theological stance, fire doesn’t have any intrinsic property to burn. Rather, when a flammable object is placed near fire, at that very instant God causes the object to combust and burn. Likewise, it isn’t water that quenches, or food that satiates, or a knife that cuts. Rather it is God who causes the effect at the precise moment that the water, food, or knife is used. That there appears to be uniformity in the laws of science, and causal relationships between certain things and others, is just that: appearances. It is a necessary illusion; a veil, behind which lies the Source of all being, namely God. At the deeper level, it is God creating and recreating at every instance.6 A core part of Islamic spirituality is to see the af‘al al-rabb, the divine acts, behind such veils. As counterintuitive as this can all sound, quantum physics seems to support the idea that causality isn’t rigidly fixed into the nature of things. Over the past decade, experiments in quantum causality have been carried out which seem to confirm that the quantum realm allows events to occur with no definite causal order. While this is all very exciting for technologies such as quantum computers and communications, what it means for the materialist creed will have to wait. It is still early days. Islamic theology will hopefully, though, have significant things to say on the matter.
8 – Language is a uniquely human gift, and is central to our experience of being human. Language doesn’t just help express our thoughts and ideas, it profoundly effects the way we think and see the world too. It can also be used to manipulate the way we think, as it did with ‘Newspeak’ in the grim, dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four. So if for no other reason than this, we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is expected to bow or pay homage. Currently, Western Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without critical assessment. So we now speak of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff; powerless to break free of the intellectual confines such concepts can keep us caged in.7
9 – What holds for the social sciences should be more so the case for political science and securitisation studies. Here, we should jettison vague and imprecise terms like Islamism,jihadi/jihadist or takfiri/takfirism where possible. Such unhelpful taxonomies aren’t really the fruits of any lexical, academic rigour. Instead, such semantics seem to be pejoratively used to denote the activities or policies of some Muslims that are held as an anathema to Western sensitivities. Takfir, for instance, is a normative theological act in Islam, accepted by every Muslim sect, designating the act of stepping beyond the pale of the religion and thus being expelled from the fold of Islam. The jihadi, a term now deployed for a terrorist claiming Muslim motivation, is another example of obfuscation. To use this, and the term jihad, as synonyms for Muslim acts of terror is to completely ignore Muslim juristic norms which classically employs the label irhabah for such atrocities; reserving jihad for a very different military activity, strictly guided by jus in bello rules that forbids the targeting of civilians. As for Islamism, used to mean the ideology which commends implementation of Islamic legal norms by the state, this would be laughable, if it wasn’t so serious in its geo-political consequences. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has pointed out, Morrocco, whose monarch bears the caliphal title of “Commander of the Faithful,” and which declares that it applies a variant of the shari‘ah, is not described as Islamist by most Western politicos, academics, or journalists. Nor, even more strikingly, is Saudi Arabia described as such by those who currently infest the security industry. And yet Turkey, we are assured, is meant to be in the soft grip of Islamism; despite the fact that its President hasn’t enacted a single shari‘ah law!8 All this is to emphasise that we must interrogate language, labels, terms and taxonomies, if we are to remain faithful to revealed truths and authentically live out God’s intent behind them; and if we wish not to be played by Muslim/non-Muslim states and their security apparatus, using terrorism as an excuse for all sorts of irreligious and authoritarian measures.
10 – This brings me to my last quibble, as it were. If Muslim students or scholars of Islam’s sacred sciences are to become macro thinkers for the love of God; if we are to produce men or women able to effectively articulate and engage their learning in today’s complex age, we need to place far more importance on creating institutes of higher learning fit for such a lofty, lordly, rabbani purpose. ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,’ wrote Francis Bacon. Islamic pedagogy must be rooted in reading widely, exploring different territories in literature; conferring and questioning, especially with those more grounded; and quality writing, which compels the writer to search their mind, dictionary or thesaurus for the best words to express one’s ideas or deliberations, allowing them to be refined and re-refined – academically, semantically and aesthetically. Currently our madrasahs or institutions of higher learning are either too narrow in their adherence to traditional Islam, or else overly secular. For what are we to make of a dars-e-nizami type curriculum which instils in the student the core ‘ulum, in line with a well-bred medieval madrasah canon, but continues to fail to equip the talib with the necessary tools to apprehend, engage or address the intellectual challenges modernity poses? Thankfully, though, there are a few institutions beginning to bridge this pedagogical chasm. Of these few, Britain’s Cambridge Muslim College, under the esteemed leadership of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, is potentially the best of them. In all likelihood, it is the world’s premiere Muslim institution in this regard. Not to reinvent the wheel, the College takes graduates from the recognised, traditional ‘alimiyyah courses, and puts them through its “finishing school,” so to speak. One of the stated aims of CMC is to ‘enable students to understand and engage with contemporary debates about the role of religion in general, and Islam in particular, in modern society.’ As with other unique enterprises that are a class unto their own, wider awareness of CMC and its potential is an issue, as is the age-old concern for support and funding. To not support such an institution in whatever way possible would surely count as a dereliction of Western Muslim duty, as well as an indictment of sorts on the current state of modern Muslimness. While academia is not every Muslim’s cup of tea, the concern for Islam to meaningfully flourish in modernity surely must be!
Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; while Britain’s Christian heritage has seemed long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. The Christian Church, it has been argued failed, less because a fashionable secularism was set against it, but because the Church itself gradually imbued the errors of the age. Had it, as Gai Eaton once so poetically put it, not swapped a policy of ease or facilitation for one of compromise; had it not reduced the price of its goods in the forlorn hope that people with more pressing concerns might show even a slight interest; had it offered a real alternative, a rock firmly planted from the very start, the public might even have been prepared to pay a high price. ‘It is even possible, had the priest turned his back upon them, attending to only the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him, knelt down – looking where he looks – and forgotten all their cares and their troubles. It might be said that the basic command of religion is not “Do this!” or “Do not do that!”, but simply “Look!” The rest follows.’9
Surely, then, in where others have gone, and in how good intentions went steadily astray, there is something for us Muslims to learn.
Thus it is that Islam, more than ever, seems to be called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its message of hope and healing will only illuminate these bewildering times if its theological concerns are firmly-grounded, yet are in tune with the needs of the time; and if it can offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and if it can practically deliver liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. This all needs slow, cool headed, measured macro thinking; and macro thinking, in turn, requires that we not get caught up in the moment, but rather take a step back to get a clearer view of the trends and trajectory that are unfolding.
Whilst we try to heal this scarred world an act at a time, I believe that we must, however, be realists. In realistic terms, and to a certain degree, we have to live in the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Moreover, we participate in the healing not to court secular humanism, but for the love of God and for the love of what people have the potential to be. It has to always be about God, and healing for the sake of God. For whatever else we may do with the time we’ve each been given by Heaven, yearning for the Face of God must take over our life.
We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq; for ease and for grace.
1. See: D.B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), 21-22.
2. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.
3. ibid., 172.
4. The point is taken up in context of humanism, Christianity, and the Church of England, in E. Norman, Secularisation (London & New York: Continuum, 2002), 1-9.
5. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.
6. This Ash‘ari view on occasionalism and the nature of causes and effects (al-asbab wa’l-musabbabat) is teased out in: Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273-74; A. Hussain, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2016), 260-67. A highly useful and colourful explanation of it is given in Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1994), 242-43. Ibn Taymiyyah held that effects occur via secondary causes created by God. So, for instance, cotton burns by (bi) a potency God creates in fire; not by God directly at the moment (‘inda) the two are conjoined. Secondary causes, he clarifies, have no causal autonomy from God. They have no efficacy in themselves to cause effects. God is the causer of all effects. See: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 8:520; 534. Ibn Taymiyya’s view seems to shy away from explaining why such secondary causes are required in the first place, and how they function or differ from God’s direct intervention. The Taymiyyan view is fleshed out in J. Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 156-65.
7. On the relationship between language, power and epistemic sovereignty, cf. W. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 12-13; 61-63.