The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “contemporary concerns”

Happiness: Modernity’s Official Religion

UNTIL THE AMERICAN Declaration of Independence gave us the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, people didn’t believe happiness was something that needed to be made into a specific right that they then had the ‘liberty’ to pursue. Instead, pursuing happiness is hard wired into our DNA. Its pursuit is instictive to our nature. In fact, we might question if there’s ever been anyone who acted in order to be unhappy? The pursuit of happiness is simply a human impulse and one of life’s givens.

Be that as it may, an American-style hankering after happiness is what has now been exported across the world. So whether through movies, popular culture, its capitalist, turbo-consumerist economy, or its typical go-it-alone attitude, much of the globe has brought into the American understanding of how happiness should be pursued. We all want our slice of the American pie of happiness. Yet as study after study keeps on revealing, Americans are not really happy. In fact, given all its creature comforts and consumption levels, it’s a country mired in rising levels of suicide, anxiety, depression and drug addiction. America isn’t happy … and Britain isn’t much better.

So what’s going on?

Well we might want to get our bearings straight by first asking ourselves: what do we mean by being happy? What is happiness? 

WHAT IS HAPPINESS?

As odd as it sounds, the reply to it is a bit tricky. Trying to define happiness is a bit of an unhappy task. But usually, when we moderns speak of being happy, or happiness, we means something like: an emotional state of well being, characterised by feeling pleasure or showing contentment. We are aware that happiness is a state, and states come and go, and normally don’t last long. Feelings are even fleetier. We are also aware that sometimes we can outwardly be content, especially if we think this is what’s expected of us, even if we are inwardly not happy or content. 

Indeed, our modern obsession with happiness might even be dooming us to failure. In an individualistic culture as our own, living by the social myth we’ve created that: ‘I must always be happy’, is a huge ask. This inevitably leads to disappointment, which then interferes with being happy. The great religious insight that true human happiness or fulfilment will not be found on the material plane alone cannot be overlooked.

MONEY CAN’T BUY ME LOVE … OR HAPPINESS!

There’s nothing new in the idea that material consumption doesn’t lead to happiness. That concept is a mainstay of just about every religion. But one doesn’t have to be religious to see how silly some of the claims that come out of our hyper-consumerist culture are. We are promised happiness with the next gadget, the next pay raise, the next designer item of clothing, or even the next sip of fizzy drink! Big buisinesses and advertisers have, for  over a century, promised happiness, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. And society doesn’t seem to have the collective will or imagination to do anything about it.

Currently, what all the science points to is that the reason why we don’t get happier as society gets richer, is because we chase after the wrong things in our quest for happiness. 

Studies seem to repeatedly confirm the age old wisdom that the source of true human happiness are to be found in: faith, family, friendship, as well as meaningful work.

Scientists have found, again and again, that those with a spiritual practice or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier, less anxious, and better able to handle life’s vicissitudes than those without one. Likewise, the data shows that people are happier in those cultures and societies that support social relationships as a pathway to happiness. In individualistic societies, the science suggests that people should try to focus less intensely on their desire to be happy and focus on building social relationships: visit family, go out with friends, and develop practices like compassion and gratitude; which might make us feel more connected to others. ‘Necessity may,’ it has been said, ‘be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection.’ We humans are social creatures. But this dazzling thing called modernity, however, has ripped us out of our natural state; our evolutionary and historical social nexus, and has made us all rather anxious.

SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS PIE-CHART

Staying with a bit more science, before ending with a few short subjective, philosophical reflections. Research has also revealed that fifty percent of what in Islam is called one’s mizaj – one’s usual temperament, or mood – is determined by our genes. Some people are genetically disposed to being happier than others. Some are disposed to being more melancholic; some more gloomy or moody, and others more cheerful, reflective or humorous. Of course, we are not held hostage to our predispositions. There are things we can do to change them for the better. And that’s where the next slice of the pie comes in.

Forty percent of happiness is related to our own state of mind, we are told. And this is something we can control. So a large part of happiness depends on what we positively do, how we positively think, how we act responsibly, and how we avoid living recklessly or in the grip of addictions. Our state of mind; our attitude, and how we behave in this world can make a significant difference to our happiness. That is to say, how we act in our lives can be a game changer.

Ten percent relates to our outward circumstances. Change in weather can affect our mood and happiness, as can seasonal changes. Bereavment and tragedy are two other significant things which impact us emotionally. And there is little we can do about them, although there might be certain ways to respond to these circumstances that are better than others.

On the science of happiness, let me add this important point. Peter Singer, professor of ethics, says that ‘when ideas first come into the world, they are likely to be wooly, and in need of more work to define them sharply. That may be the case with the idea of happiness.’1 So while we might benefit from the overall facts, figures and percentages in this area, the science of happiness is still work in progress.

SHOULD HAPPINESS BE THE ULTIMATE GOAL?

Having established that we all have an inbuilt impulse to seek happiness, there seems to be a bit of a paradox – a tautology, in fact – between that and America’s Declaration of Independence which asserts that everyone is at liberty to pursue happiness. How can happiness be a right that we choose to puruse, if pursuing it is an innate part of our very disposition?

The simplest version of happiness is that it is nothing more than feeling good. This idea lies behind the philosophy that promotes it as the highest good, and the one that we as a nation have signed up to: utilitarianism. It is the philosophy of Bentham and Mill, which judges the moral worth of an action by its consequence, which is usually expressed as: ‘the greatest pleasure [happiness] for the greatest number of people.’ Thus, any action is morally good, provided it brings the person pleasure and doesn’t harm anyone else. Nietzsche disdained utilitarian thinking. ‘For Nietzsche, the idealisation of happiness puts desire for easy comfort above the aspiration for greatness … Happiness is for simple creatures, like the cat curled up in  the basket or the child splashing in a paddling pool; serious adults should have higher ambitions.’2

In contrast to this consequentialist philosophy is Aristotle’s virtue ethics. This is much closer to the traditional Islamic idea of happiness (sa‘adah), It is the ethics which says that one should do an act because it is the right thing to do, regardless of what feelings do or don’t occur as a consequence. It is to live a life of nurturing in oneself those good habits or traits known as virtues. This is where eudaimonia, ‘flourishing’ or ‘happiness’, lies.

HAPPINESS IN ISLAM

The Qur’an says: Whoever does good, be they male or female, and has faith, We shall cause them to live a goodly life. [Q.16:97] This hayyatun tayyibah, or ‘goodly life’, was understood by Muslims scholars to be a life of happiness and contentment in this world.3 This is a life of worship and obedience to Allah, and duty and sincere service to others; along with ridding the soul of its spiritual vices and nurturing in it the spiritual virtues.

Some studies have shown that there’s a correlation between happiness and religious rituals. Religious rituals helps teach responsibility to oneself and to others, and can instill discipline to keep us away from addictions, drugs or alcohol, thus contributing to our overall happiness. Likewise, religious chanting also helps increase feelings of well being. In terms of rituals and chanting, one might think of the Muslim prayer (salat), as well as the act of dhikr, or remembrance of God: invoking or reverently chanting certain phrases of God’s praise, glory or greatness. All in all, religious observance, by creating certain moral boundaries and discipline, actually helps to shield people from certain weaknesses and vices which can lead to unhappiness, such as addiction to alcohol or gambling.

For the believer, however, the real summum bonnum, the highest, ultimate happiness is as the Quranic verse says: For those who act with excellence is the greatest good, and even more. [Q.10:26] The ‘greatest good’ is understood to be Paradise with all its delights and endless bliss, while the ziyadah, or ‘even more’ is the ultimate delight of the ru’ya – the Beatific Vision of God. The Prophet ﷺ told us: ‘When the people of Heaven enter Heaven and the denizens of Hell enter Hell, a herald shall call out: “O people of Paradise! There is a tryst for you with your Lord, which He wishes to bring about for you.” “What might that tryst be?” they enquire. “Did He not make heavy our scales, whiten our faces, and bring us into Heaven and deliver us from Hell?” Then the veil shall be lifted, and they shall gaze at the Face of God. By God, never will the believers be given anything more beloved to them than of gazing at Him.’4

1. Ethics in the Real World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), 197.

2. Baggini & Macaro, Life: A User Manual (London: Ebury Press, 2020), 159.

3. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Dat Tayyibah al-Khudara’, 2018), 2:775.

4. Muslim, no.181.

Modernity in Seven Bite Size Pieces & How It Impacts Faith (1/2)

‘Modernity is the transition from fate to choice.’ – Jonathan Sacks

‘Modernity is a deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.’ – Yuval Noah Harari

‘The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foot-hold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.’ – Albert Camus

‘Modernity sees humanity as having ascended from what is inferior to it – life begins in slime and ends in intelligence – whereas traditional cultures see it as descended from its superiors.’ – Huston Smith

From about the mid 1700s, starting in northern Europe and then, over the next few centuries, spreading across the entire globe, people have become aware of living in times radically different from any other age before, which began to be called the modern age – or modernity, for short. Today, there’s nowhere on this planet, not even those parts once thought remote from civilisation, that hasn’t been touched by the tentacles of modernity or influenced by its ideologies and ideals.

Modernity didn’t just happen. Rather, it’s a historical process, incremental in its formation. Its general character includes: emphasis on rationality and science over tradition or religion; belief in progress; confidence in human mastery over nature; focus on individualism, loyalty to a usurious-based market capitalism; and a strong reliance upon the state and its various institutions. Above all, to be modern is to believe that history moves forward and the power humankind has to improve its situation is unlimited: and so the best is always yet to come.

The radical and conscious altering nature of modernity is such that, even in its early days, for philosophers like Hegel, sociologists like Weber, and economists like Adam Smith or Karl Marx, the sense that something called modernity had arrived wasn’t a claim just about European history, but about the history of the entire world.

The difference between the traditional, pre-modern world and the modern one cannot be put down to one specific philosophical idea or one specific invention. Instead, it had more to do with the way people began to think. Below are seven concepts which form the core of what becoming modern has entailed – along with some brief reflections concerning how such concepts have subtly shaped the way we as Muslims perceive the world and society; even at the expense of established Quranic values and attitudes:

1. Secularisation: This is probably modernity’s clearest hallmark. Secularisation is a process where religious consciousness, activities and institutions lose their social significance and are excluded from public life – be it in education, law-making, administration or government. It happens when religion ceases to be at the centre of social life and where it no longer articulates the common good. This might be called the objective aspect of secularisation. As for its subjective part, one that usually has a corroding effect on faith, it entails the slow erosion of religious feelings and thoughts from the understanding of worldly matters. Religion, then, either ceases to exist as an autonomous force; or is hollowed out and emptied of meaning, to become a toothless tiger; or is confined to personal rituals in the private sphere. While secularisation, i.e. the separation of Religion and State, was first contrived as a way of preserving Faith, not destroying it; it is in the nature of Homo religiosus that when everyday life is bereft of religious references, the religious mind becomes gradually and unwittingly secularised, heedlessness creeps in and the downward spiral of faith gathers pace.

It is for such reasons that in Islam’s view of things, whatever form governance might take, among its primary duties, along with ensuring rights of minority voices, is to allow an environment where the religious project can flourish. In this sense, form plays second fiddle to content. Islam doesn’t need the form to be theocratic: it does, however, require the content to be theocentric. The soil of society must allow godliness to grow. Political leadership, guided by religious authority, must take care that the material concerns of the community do not grow out of proportion at the expense of faith, morality, or mindfulness of God. So secularisation, as commonly understood – contrary to the misplaced hopes of many a short-sighted Muslim activist or political theorist – can never really be the believer’s story. In Islam, society should participate in the glory of God; and if not, it cannot be a cause for its erosion. Finding the right equilibrium, however, between society’s political stability, economic welfare and its spiritual wellbeing is easier said than done.

2. Rationalisation: The idea that the world can be managed through a rational and reasonable system of processes and data. Rationalisation is the process by which society becomes more rational; in that the ways of ordering society and solving problems increasingly focus on efficiency (to achieve maximum results with minimum effort) and predictability (to predict future outcomes), instead of on tradition, religion, or other pre-modern ways of functioning. To be clear, saying that modern societies are rational does not imply that pre-modern ones were irrational or nonsensical; or acted randomly and senselessly. Traditional societies tended to have their own internal logic, which made sense from their own specific religious or cultural frames of reference. Rather, all that is meant is that pre-modern societies were non-rational, in that the methods of solving problems of society or the individual didn’t prioritise efficiency – as in rational societies – but emphasised what is right, morally sound or traditionally correct. A rational society lives by the rule: ‘Maximise your own best self-interest’, while non-rational societies tended to value altruism, self sacrifice, or looking out for the needs of the family, community or society, over one’s own self-interest. A rational society focuses on end results (with the means usually justifying the ends); non-rational ones focus on process, i.e. the way of actually doing things. In short, a rational society is impersonal; highly regulated and procedural; and has as its goal the maximising of efficiency above all other concerns. As such techniques of rationalisation crept over much of the earth, and the climate of opinion it created became more and more uniform, it was inevitable that the vibrant and diverse human stories would be reduced to a weary, monocultured humanity. The contrast in the order of priorities between a modern society and a traditional one; especially an Islamic one, can scarcely be overstated.

This iron cage created by the increased rationalisation of society, as calculating; cold; clinical; and controlling as it can be, has certain advantages over non-rational societies; and visa-versa. It isn’t the case that non-rational societies were all beautiful, virtuous and good and that rational ones are manipulative, calculating and cold. It’s not as black and white as that. The issue for believers isn’t that traditional Muslim societies were in one sense freer or had far fewer rules that governed it; or that modern societies traded the value of beauty (be it in architecture, art, crafts, or one’s character) for rationalisation’s drift towards ugliness. Rather, the deeper concern is that this rationalising impulse – which first started in factories (industrialisation); then moved into government and large institutions (bureaucracies) – has now thoroughly spilled over into family life, relationships, society and even religious thinking. This being especially so when calculations of efficiency and maximising one’s best self interest are no longer governed or guided by overarching moral virtues. Thus when beauty and virtue no longer shape our way of thinking; when how we do things is seen as less important than what is done; or when attitudes are infiltrated by ideas of efficiency and maximising self-interest, the Islamic imperative of adab is then crippled and compromised – even if we are committed to Islamic acts. And as the saints and sages of Islam have long ago pointed out, when the soul lets go of the reigns of adab, all things run amok!

How can anyone whose mind is seized and held captive by the prejudices and subjective outlook of our modern age ever hope to understand traditional ways of living or Quranic ways of being in which the order of human priorities were not merely different, but totally reversed. Which is why it is not enough to have a firm grasp of our fiqh tradition in terms of how it is to be applied today. For without our fiqh being deeply infused with insights from our suluk tradition; or without diagnosing the philosophical foundations of modernity and its psycho-spiritual impact on religion, our fiqh will continue to be the intellectually lame enterprise which the simple concession-based logic of ‘minority fiqh’ and other reformist fiqh projects currently are. If anything, we need more fikr in our fiqh framing.

The final part of this article will, God willing, discuss five other pillars which make up modernity: individualism, disenchantment, alienation, mechanisation, and commodification.

Transhumanism, Homo Rapiens & Modern Muslimness

This is another article where I attempt to address some themes and dilemmas of modern Muslimness. Like previous outings, this too is less a coherent article and more a cluster of thoughts or ruminations tied together by the theme of searching for Muslim authenticity in a post-modern, post-monotheistic age.

Our primary legitimation for living in the geographical West, a place which most of us instinctively call home, is to invite our post-monotheistic society, our people, to Abrahamic monotheism (tawhid): ‘O my people! Worship God! You have no other god except Him who you should be worshiping.’ [Q.7:59] This often requires that we first help people reawaken their fitrah, in order that they may leave their comfort zones, question the assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. This task is all the more imperative, given that in our age of enthroning the individual Self, we now face three intertwined existential crisis: a crisis of loneliness, a crisis of alienation, and a crisis of purpose. Anxious, uncertain, unrooted, fearful as well as increasingly aggressive, society has turned its back on the traditional notion of the soul being outwardly directed, to the modern notion of the Self being inwardly focused; with all the attendant traumas and travesties that come cascading down on the human psyche from this inversion. It’s here that the prophetically-inspired wisdom must make itself known and heard, if we are to be healers and therapists and help orientate the soul of society towards God and towards moral joy.

In one celebrated hadith, we read: ‘Indeed, Allah chose [the tribe of] Kinanah from the descendants of Ishmael; He chose Quraysh from Kinanah; He chose the tribe of Hashim from Quraysh; and He chose me from the tribe of Hashim.’1 That the Prophet ﷺ was istafa – ‘chosen,’ or ‘selected’ – is where we get the Prophet’s name or title, al-Mustafa – ‘the Chosen One’.

But there’s another reason why I quoted this hadith with the blessed lineage, this nisbah sharifah, which has an urgent bearing on modern Muslimness. And that has to do with the beginning of the lineage, with the Prophet Ishmael (Ar. Isma‘il), peace be upon him, and the Ishmaelite inculturation into the Arabian landscape. For lest we forget, Ishmael was not born in Arabia. He wasn’t born an Arab. He was born, as per Biblical lore, north of Arabia; in Canaan. He, along with his Egyptian mother Hagar, was brought to the valley of Makkah by his father Abraham, under divine instruction. There he fully settled, there he was raised, and there he grew up into the ways of the Arabs: their language, dress, customs and culture. At no point was there any obligation on him, neither from his father nor his mother, to be Canaanite in culture or Egyptian in speech and dress.

That same Ishmaelite principle of inculturation, that does not expect Muslims to take on anything other than the cultural norms of their respected landscapes (as filtered through revealed counsel), is currently honoured more in the breach than the observance by too many of Ishmael’s spiritual descendants living here in the West. Inculturation is undeniably one of the great lessons of the sacred Ishmaelite story. A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian dress, or clings to foreign ‘urf embellishments uncalled for by the shari‘ah, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public who will just see them as alien and unrelatable; and will be unable to envisage how Islam might be for British and Western people. Such a failure of the religious imagination must be swiftly, yet wisely, remedied.

It is said that the emergence of intellectuals who have made a critical paradigm shift in some area or another of human thought is reflective of the intellectual and civilisational culture from which they emerge. This is certainly true of the Islamic intellectual tradition where it had likely taken hundreds of average and above average scholarly intellectuals before any polymath of the calibre of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Hazm, al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Aqil or Ibn Taymiyyah emerged. After God’s grace, the civilisational soil from which any thinker belongs must be conducive for such brilliance to grow and flourish. Historically, the civilisational culture set in motion by Islam created an atmosphere in which scholars felt confident and compelled to fully engage their intellectual milieu, as part of taking on the concerns germane to humanity and to the wider human story.

Sadly, this isn’t the case today; and hasn’t been for a while. There are, however, a few emerging voices in our otherwise all but silent intellectual wilderness. If we’ve learnt anything from the fate of other religions which have engaged the juggernaut of secular modernity, it’s that our capacity to dissent, rather than to conform or capitulate, is our only sane choice – if we wish to be saved from the same pitiful tragedy that befell the various Judaeo-Christian attempts and their morphing into disfigured variants of secular, liberal humanism. The point was poignantly put by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he explained that, ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’2

Today, the dominant ethical and intellectual visions of humanity are shaped by the pervasive secular philosophies of liberalism, democracy and human rights; and the religious creed they are rooted in: the religion of progress, consumption and aggressive capitalist growth. But there are unmistakable signs and an ever growing body of hard data from the natural and human sciences that all’s not well. From the spectre of global warming and environmental destruction, to the Intensive farming and the industrial scale animal abuse inherent in it; through to the planned obsolescence policy to ensure consumer goods become unusable after a pre-determined period of time, and the throw away culture that comes in its wake: creating a grotesque amount of unnecessary waste we’re currently dumping into the oceans, the air, or into landfills.

And all this is being driven by corporate greed, a capitalist economic model and its unsustainable demand for more and more growth, and the turbo-consumer culture this has given rise to. Consumption of stuff requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, fossil fuels, water, etc.); it requires creation of factories that create huge amounts of toxic by products and carbon emissions; and the use of many of these goods themselves create huge levels of pollution and waste – fuelling global warming, decimating our eco systems, and causing our environmental collapse. Such recklessness and rapacious greed are why the English philosopher, John Gray has dubbed us Homo rapiens.3

Whatever our collective response to this must be is still being hotly debated. But one thing is blindingly clear. If we are to avert this global catastrophe; if we are to significantly pull back from this tipping point, we must radically reign in our levels of consumption; rethink our ways of living and producing, making them sustainable for the planet as a whole; and reevaluate the myth that seduces us into believing that we actually need lots and lots of useless, consumer stuff to make us happy and live fulfilled lives. If we are prepared to rise above this lie that’s been foisted upon us over the past century or so, we might all still have a fighting chance.

That said, we’re still left with the inescapable question that confronts Western Muslim intellectual thought: What can Islam offer today that could constitute ethical progress or better human welfare, as we Muslims seek for settled status as minorities in our Western context?

Transhumanism is the final thing I wish to briefly muse over. Now this might seem a bit like a pie in the sky concern compared to, let’s say, global warming. But hear me out. Depending on who you ask, transhumanism is just around the next corner, or it’s at least fifty years away. But what is transhumanism? ‘Isms’ are always tricky to define; in fact, they are often undefinable. They tend to be a loosely-knit set of core ideas about some philosophy, social movement or behaviour. So again, what is transhumanism?

Those old enough to remember the sci-fi show, The Six Million Dollar Man will recall: ‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better … stronger … faster.’ That was back in 1974, where the fictional character was part rebuilt and enhanced using bio-technological (bionic) parts. Today, in the 21st century, surgeons and scientists do a lot of this stuff for real, plus more.

Transhumanism is the idea that human weaknesses such as sickness, ageing and even death could and should be overcome with technology. Science should be used to transcend the biological limitations of human beings – and even the human species – to make them transhuman. This involves augmenting weaker or defective body parts (which already occurs with pacemakers, transplants, prosthetic limbs, etc.) with the latest replacement tech; or editing out defective or debilitating genes (such as trying to identify and remove or turn-off the gene that causes ageing). Linking a human brain to an AI network, or replacing an actual brain with an AI one, is also included in such augmentations or editing. If the end result is Homo sapiens 2.0, or even an entirely new kind of species, then it must be welcomed and actively promoted. Such are the transhumanist contentions and aspirations. In short, transhumanism might be thought of as ‘faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans.’4

What then should the Muslim response to all this be? What would be the fatwa, and what ethical principles would it be grounded in? If transhumanism, whose cards are already being laid on the table, is just around the corner, then in all likelihood there are Muslims out there, as I write, whose work or research is connected to this matter. Be they medics, surgeons or IT experts at the cutting edge of the biotech field, or software writers, or Muslims working in those tech industries that might be contracted to develop such augmentations or tools for such editing – many of them will want to know where they as Muslims should stand in all of this? To what extent is a Muslim doctor morally obliged to find cures for diseases, and ensure that those diseases never occur again? To what extent is it legally right for a Muslim to edit out those aspects within the body that lead to old age and eventually to death, if we can turn those genes off or make them dormant? Such questions are being asked and answered by many others; and we Muslims would do well to enter the conversation.

Of course, as with other big questions of this nature, scholars in the Islam-is-a-modern-religion brigade will unsurprisingly, as well as uncritically, endorse it by way of the usual desperate and delinquent claims of Islam being the religion of science and progress, and all that Islamic modernist dross. But for most of our jurists and theologians, I suspect, a red line will have been crossed at some point. For anything which so fundamentally alters our outward human form or essential Adamic nature will be subsumed under the Quranic injunction: There shall be no altering of Allah’s creation, [Q.30:30] and the celebrated hadith of the imago dei: ‘Indeed, Allah created Adam in His own image.’5 Where exactly this line should be drawn will, in all likelihood, be open to its fair share of juristic ambiguity and theological debate.

Some gadgets or technology might be able to exist side by side with us humans, without them notably altering our social patterns. But other kinds of tech are far from neutral; they can dramatically alter what people will be like because of them. The task of a futurist (futurologist) is less to predict what gadgets and tech we’ll have in the future, and more so to envisage how such tech will shape us, or even how it can make us more amenable to transhumanism. An urgent aspect of Muslim scholarship, then, must be devoted to these macro questions of futurology, as well as supply us with wise, critical, and practical guidance on how we can best evaluate our use of technology in the light of Islamic ethics, Adamic norms and fitrah values. We might currently flinch at the very idea of transhumanism. But technology bends us into behaving in a particular way. It moulds us into seeing the world in a particular way. It disciples us. And it has a marked tendency to sneak its values into us at almost every turn.

Let me wrap up with this thought. While discussing certain issues surrounding AI upgrades, the historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari conjectures whether such technology, rather than heal the currently huge inequalities brought on by globalisation, could actually exacerbate them. He says about the already super-rich, who already monopolise the fruits of globalisation, that they might finally have something truly worthwhile to do with their huge wealth. ‘While hitherto they could buy little more than status symbols, soon they might able to buy life itself. If new treatments for extending life and for upgrading physical and cognitive abilities prove to be expensive, humankind my split into biological castes.’6 He says that if the super-rich use these upgraded or edited abilities ‘to enrich themselves further, and if more money can buy them enhanced bodies and brains, with time the gap will only widen.’7 He concludes with this bleak prediction: ‘The two processes together – bioengineering coupled with the rise of AI – might therefore result in the separation of humankind into a small class of superhumans and a massive underclass of useless Homo sapiens.8

This isn’t the only bifurcation to be concerned about. Even if these technologies were to steadily become affordable to the masses, such that they too could be uber-humans, there’s still the matter of Islam’s blessed conservatism. Believers are required by faith to conserve revealed teachings; conserve prophetic ways of living; and conserve the sacrality of mind, body and soul, and the higher aims for which the Maker created them. So possibly, while the affordability of such technology does not yet trickle down to the masses, there will be a bifurcation between the rich and the poor; between the haves and the have-nots. But that will diminish as the tech becomes more affordable. The greater bifurcation; the greater clash, however, is very likely to be between the masses of bioengineered transhumans who, as per Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, continue ‘looking with amazement and Islamophobic contempt upon the Muslim ummah where, I suspect, the majority of people will not engineer their children in order to produce a generation of superhumans.’9 What’s unfolding now is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater divide. Yet risking such unpopularity and scorn, due to clinging to what is divinely revealed and prophetically inspired (instead of pandering to Godless acts of progress), is the ummah’s responsibility. Being too apologetic or overly strategic isn’t really the prophetic way. One has to risk unpopularity. But this must be done with considerable wisdom, foresight and discretion.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Muslim, no.2276.

2. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.

3. Gray, Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 397, 401.

4. Shatzer, Transhumanism and the Image of God (USA; Interverasity Press, 2019), 39.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.6227; Muslim, no.2841. I’ve discussed this hadith, along with its meanings and implications, in: Man, Universe & Macro Theology: Created in God’s Image.

6. Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 75.

7. ibid., 75.

8. ibid., 75.

9. In a video lecture, entitled: Transhumanism and Islam.

 

Islam’s Evolution Question

imageIs Islam’s account of Man’s origin true, or has the Theory of Evolution shown it to be false? This article takes Evolution’s core mainstream claims and inspects them in the light of orthodox Muslim theology. In doing so, we will come to see that the Islamic view on Evolution isn’t one of wholesale rejection (as is often assumed), nor of outright, uncritical acceptance. Rather Islam’s theology should lead Muslims to take something of a middle ground, as I’ll hopefully show and demonstrate.

Along the way, we’ll address some common mistaken views people hold about the theory of evolution (like saying that it’s just a theory), and some alarmingly erroneous ideas some hold about God and Muslim theology.

What makes this discussion more charged than usual is that, while in the field of physics and cosmology arguments for God are given a ready hearing by most scientists, this is not so in the field of biology where the mainstream outlook is that the theory of evolution has buried God. To suggest that the Big Bang or that the fine tuning of the universe points to God instead of atheism, given that the impressions of design are so overwhelming, are claims deemed as scientifically plausible by most physicists; especially since they don’t challenge mainstream views of science, but rather are grounded in them. When it comes to evolution and biology, the situation is very different. Here, the mere mention of God or of a designing intelligence is considered pseudoscience. This is so, even though, as with cosmology, the natural world also gives us an overwhelming impression of design. Richard Dawkins even defined biology to be ‘the study of complicated things which give the impression of having been designed for a purpose.’1

An overview of what will be covered runs as follows: [i] What is evolution and what does it claim? [ii] Isn’t evolution just a theory? [iii] Where are the missing fossils? [iv] Criticisms of the theory. [v] Story of evolution overall. [vi] Story of mainstream human evolution. [vii] Islam and the theory of evolution, overall. [viii] Islam and human evolution. [ix] Theistic evolution, is that the answer? [x] How do we account for the hominid fossils? I’ll then conclude with some final remarks.

I. WHAT IS EVOLUTION AND WHAT DOES IT CLAIM?

1. Let’s start by asking what’s meant by the theory of evolution? Scientists tell us it refers to a carefully thought-out set of testable ideas and observations which explain how life on earth evolved and how biological organisms (living things) are related to each other.

Francois Ayala, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, explains to us that the theory of evolution makes three core claims: [i] All organisms are related by common ancestry; [ii] the details of when different species split from one another, and the changes that took place in each species; [iii] the way by which evolutionary change actually occurs.2

The first issue, he insists, is the one most vigorously supported by a large body of evidence and is agreed to by virtually every credible biologist. That organisms are related by common evolutionary descent is, we are told, beyond any doubt. As for the second and third issues, some aspects of them are firmly validated, while others are less so; and some are untested or highly speculative. On the whole, says Ayala, ‘uncertainty about these issues does not cast doubt on the fact of evolution.’3 By that Ayala means, the overall fact of evolution.

2. Why is it important to know the above? Well in order to honestly assess the evolution question, we must first know and understand the issue. Only then can its claims be weighed against well-established tenets of Islam to see how compatible or not they are. Muslim scholars works on the rule: hukm ‘ala shay’ far‘un ‘an tasawurihi – ‘Judgement about a thing comes after conceptualising it properly.’ In other words, how can you judge the validity of something if you do not know what it actually is?

3. The theory of evolution offers an explanation for how living things adapt to their environment or even how they evolve into other species: Natural selection (i.e. certain traits ‘selected’ by ‘nature’ which allows the organism to survive). It is via this mechanism that living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to survive or adapt to their environment. These traits (or ‘selfish’ genes) are then passed to the next generation, thus increasing their chances of survival. Those not having such advantages or that do not pass on the advantage, die out over the long run. Sometimes, through nothing more than random chance, a gene mutates in an organism by which it acquires an advantage trait. Through ‘natural selection’ and ‘random mutation’ organisms adapt or can evolve into different species. This is what Darwin first proposed in his Origin of Species, and is what the theory of evolution says fits all the fossil records, observations and genetic data: not just of insects or animals, but of us human beings too.

II. ISN’T EVOLUTION JUST A THEORY?

4. A common objection against evolution is that “it’s only a theory!” That is, it’s just all guesswork or hunches; it’s not factual or true. But when scientists speak of a theory, they use the word in a different way than how it’s used in ordinary, everyday speech. Ordinarily, we speak of theory in the sense of a ‘speculation,’ ‘guess’ or ‘hunch.’ The detective has a theory, a hunch, as to how the crime at hand was committed; for example. In science, though, theory is used to mean: a set of ideas which explain a phenomena or group of facts that have been tested and confirmed by observation or experiment. In other words, a scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world based on facts, proofs and rigorous testing. Science uses the word hypothesis for any theory that has not been fully or adequately tested.4

5. Science has many theories which are not guesstimates, but are painstakingly constructed on accurate experimental observation and logical inferences. The atomic theory is one of them, which states as a matter of fact that all matter is made up of atoms and of subatomic particles. The theory of thermodynamics is another. It forms the grounds for how refrigerators and central heating in our houses work, to how engines move our cars, to how biological process in our bodies keep us alive. The knowledge behind this is all factual. And yet it is still called a theory. Then there’s quantum field theory and the theory of relativity. Both of these theories yield certain knowledge about how the subatomic world and gravity work, respectively. So much of what these theories state have been proven to be experimentally and observationally true, even if some aspects of them are still speculative and short on empirical evidence. And on the whole, the same goes for the theory of evolution.

III. WHERE ARE ALL THE MISSING FOSSILS?

6. Another bone some commonly pick with the theory of evolution concerns the poor state of the fossil record; of how few fossils there actually are. Biologists and palaeontologists (scientists who specialise in the study of fossils) are eager to get us to appreciate just how fortunate we are to have unearthed whatever fossils we thus far have. This is because the fossilisation of creatures, they say, is actually a rare occurrence. Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, explained: ‘The vast majority of organisms that have ever lived on Earth have left absolutely no trace of their existence, since fossils arise in only highly unusual circumstances. (For example, a creature has to be caught in a certain type of mud or rock, without being picked apart by predators. Most bones rot and crumble. Most creatures decay.) Given that reality, it is rather actually amazing that we have such a wealth of information about organisms that have lived on this planet.’5 This is why, argues Collins, the fossil records, although woefully incomplete, are still very useful.

7. Despite potholes in current fossil records, many paelo-evolutionists have, so it seems, unearthed transitional fossil forms that show a gradual change from reptile to bird, and from reptile to mammal. Archaeopteryx, an intermediate form between reptile and bird, is one such example of a transition. Another is Hyracotherium, an animal the size of a dog that has several toes on each foot, evolving into Equus, the much larger one-toed, modern horse. We are assured the gradual transition of the fossil record has been constructed in considerable detail.6 This claim is something one can research and decide for themselves; with a degree of patience, open-mindedness and objectivity. But without first putting in the required research, on what grounds can we dismiss the claim as false or erroneous? The protagonists of evolution have constructed at least two proofs for a visible transition from one species to another (called speciation), it is for the antagonist to intelligently deconstruct them, if they are able.

8. As for the human ‘missing link,’ then most evolutionary biologists feel pretty certain the missing links have been found. Paelo-evolutionists will point to the fossil record of various hominids – erect bipeds (walking upright, on two legs) that have varying resemblance to modern man, starting with Australopithecus, then Homo habilus, then Homo erectus, and finally us Homo sapiens. More will be said about this in Section VI. But for now, these telling fossils are held up as a missing link of sorts (or to be more precise, common ancestors) to humans. If we add to the fossil records, evidence from the science of genetics; especially DNA sequencing and genetic drifting, then the case for evolution – at least in its broad strokes – is considered by most scientists to be pretty watertight.

I say ‘common ancestor’ rather than ‘missing link’ because of a vital point that is grossly misunderstood today. From museum displays to editorial cartoons, the popular image of human evolution is depicted as a linear progression from primitive to advanced; from an ape on all fours that gradually straightens up, evolving into a stone age man with a club then a spear, to a modern human. We’re told by evolutionary scientists that the phrase, ‘man was descended from apes,’ is both unhelpful and a gross oversimplification, as is the popular notion that a certain extinct hominid is the ‘missing link’. This public misconception misrepresents how evolution really works. Rather the better image of evolution would be a tree, with a long trunk and a myriad of branches, sub-branches and shoots. It is this gradual branching process that best depicts the diversity of life, all having a common ancestor at the very base of the trunk. Some scientists are keen to get rid of those T-shirts and bumper stickers that depict evolution in a step-by-step straight line and replace them with a branching diagram, so as to make a more nuanced and correct point about evolution.

9. Evolution through natural selection is viewed by atheists as a knock-out blow to Religion. Through it, they say, one can explain the emergence of complex life (including human life) that were previously thought to require a Creator-God. In the words of Dawkins: ‘Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.’7

Today, many people believe it can’t be God and evolution via natural selection; they are mutually exclusive. It’s one or the other. And since we have evidence for evolution, then there is no God. Just how correct this line of thinking is will be tackled later, as will the mistaken belief that natural selection is an agent, rather than a mechanism.

IV. STORY OF EVOLUTION OVERALL

10. According to mainstream evolutionary claims, the Darwinian Genesis story, up until the arrival of Man, goes something like this:

Life on earth emerged about three billion years ago when a cocktail of simple chemicals combined to form more complex ones. This mixing took place in the seas of the early Earth; the ‘primordial soup’. Injection of energy was needed to spark-off a reaction between molecules, which may have come from lightning storms or from hot underwater springs. The molecules then joined together to form more complex ones, called amino acids which, in turn, went on to form proteins; the building blocks of all living creatures. Another complex molecule formed in these reactions was DNA, which has two traits that make it essential for life to exist. It carries all the information to make a living creature, and it can also replicate itself. Over millions of years the cocktail of molecules evolved into bacteria; thought to be the earliest ancestors of all life on our planet today.

This is where, we’re told, natural selection kicked in. Through this mechanism living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to adapt to their environment. Via natural selection and random genetic mutation, organisms can both adapt as a species and even evolve into different species. Single-cell life in Earth’s ancient waters evolved into worms and jelly fish via this process about 700 million years ago; dinosaurs arrived around 225 million years ago and died out suddenly 65 million years ago. The fossil records suggest our early human like ancestors only branched-off from the great apes a mere 5 million years ago and that Homo sapiens (us humans) are a fairly recent appearance: anywhere from around 200,000 to 40,000 years ago.

V. STORY OF MAINSTREAM HUMAN EVOLUTION

11. As for how human beings came to be, then the theory of evolution says that: Around 4 million years ago, apelike hominids known as Australopithicus first appeared in Africa. Australopithicus was a biped and had a brain capacity about one-third that of modern humans. It is said that they eventually gave way to the Homo genus about 2.5 million years ago.

Homo habilis (“handy man” – so called because it was the first hominid to use tools) lived in tropical Africa around 2.5 to 1.5 million years ago. It had a brain size around half that of modern humans and it was also a biped. It was more chimpanzee than human though.

Homo erectus (“upright man”) is regarded as the dividing line: everything that came before it was apelike in character; everything that came after was human like. Homo erectus appeared 1.8 million years ago and persisted until perhaps 250,000 years ago. It had a vastly more sophisticated brain and was physically much stronger than modern humans. It appears that it was the first to hunt, the first to use fire, the first to fashion complex tools, the first to look after the weak and frail.

Humans, classified as Homo sapien (“knowing man” or “wise man”), originated in Africa around about 200,000 years ago and eventually colonised the rest of the world, replacing all other hominids. It was as recently as 40,000 years ago, say scientists, that Homo sapiens reached “behavioural modernity” when traits which define modern humans started to emerge: complex language, figurative art, abstract thought, jewelary for adornment, game playing, finely made tools and burials (referred to as the Behavioral B’s: blades, beads, burials, beauty and bone toolmaking). Homo sapiens living before 50,000 years were behaviourally primitive and almost indistinguishable from other extinct hominids.

There are a few other hominids, but this is just a simplified sketch of the story. Did each hominid evolve directly from the previous one in a linear fashion? Or is it that they each have common ancestors with those preceding them (and so are indirectly related)? Scientists today tend to talk of common ancestors and family branches more than they do linear evolution.

12. One last aspect of the evolution story that should be known. It has to do with the two type of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is completely uncontroversial. It refers to small evolutionary changes in a species over short spans of time. Such changes are frequently observed and constantly being documented. Bacteria evolving to develop resistance to antibiotics is one well-known example of microevolution. Viruses mutating to develop resistance to antiviral drugs is sadly another.

Macroevolution, by contrast, refers to major evolutionary change of one species into a different one (also called “speciation”), over long periods of time. It seems most evolutionary biologists are advocates of gradualism: that macroevolution happens gradually over time. There’s a school of thought that proposes the idea of punctuated equilibrium; that speciation happens in isolated pockets of rapid macroevolution between long periods of little or no change.

VI. CRITICISMS OF EVOLUTION

Before moving on, let’s briefly consider some scientific critiques of the standard evolution story. Those wanting to dive deeper into these criticisms can chase up the threads discussed here under their own steam:

13. The first criticism, unsurprisingly, has to do with the transitional fossils. We might call it the criticism of imaginative palaeontology. Transitional fossils are fossils of animals or plants that are in the middle of evolving, over thousands or millions of years, from one type of species to another. Critics argue that even though some fossils may appear as if they are intermediate forms, there’s just no solid evidence to connect the separate lines of descent into a single common ancestor. To believe that there is, the critics say, is more wishful thinking than it is cut and dry, conclusive science. Detailed critiques of specific transitional fossils are also offered. The counter argument is confident that such fossils do represent evolutionary transitions between one kind of life and another. They insist that such fossil evidence linking them to the past, along with genetic and embryonic similarities, all imply a common descent from early forms. Counter arguments against specific transitional records, like the Archaeopteryx, are also robustly presented.

Another criticism concerns the issue of scientific repeatability. For any scientific principle or knowledge to be considered true or bonafide, any results obtained by an experiment or observational study must be reproducible to a high degree of accuracy, when it is repeated again using the same methodology by different researchers. Only after several successful replications can the results be taken as scientific knowledge. Evolutionists say that although we cannot replicate the macroevolution of humans, or a fish evolving into a horse (since it would take millions of years), we can replicate thousands of generations of certain species in a fairly short interval of time. Thus, since 1988, twelve populations of E.coli bacteria have been carefully grown in a lab to detect evolutionary changes. In 2020, 73,500 generations later, scientists observed certain staggering adaptions in terms of microevolution. Macroevolution, or speciation, however, has yet to be observed. Evolution’s detractors see this as a clear vindication. Its supporters say that while the bacteria should have reached peak adaption by now, maybe some mutations have altered the environment, causing it to remain in a state of adaption, instead of the adaptions being allowed to cumulatively add up to a new species.

There’s also the issue of genetic entropy: how can chaotic, lifeless, random stuff give rise to highly defined ordered and consciousness? Douglas Adams, the self-professed ‘radical atheist’ of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, remarked in his book: ‘Isn’t it enough to see the garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’8 This, I feel, gets to the crux of the issue of chaos and lifeless stuff giving rise to order and beauty. To appreciate this splendid garden, we don’t have to believe in fairies. But it would be wholly reasonable, certainly not irrational, to believe in a gardener. A beautiful garden would cause us to believe that someone with skill, craft, ability and intelligence took time out to cultivate the garden. If, however, the garden was a huge sprawl of uncultivated chaos, weeds and mess, we’d be right in thinking there was no gardener. If we found that this huge sprawl had become an orderly picture of beautifully arranged flowers, cut grass and trimmed hedges, how could it not be the work of a gardener? Such is also the case with chaotic, lifeless matter in Earth’s primordial soup becoming highly ordered, intelligent and sentient. And, of course, this applies not just to life on earth, but also the universe as a whole; from the seismic, volatile chaos after the Big Bang to the order, beauty, majesty and intelligibility that the cosmic garden contains. Might not such compelling impressions of design on earth or in the starry heavens be because of an actual designer? Surely such design calls out for a transcendent explanation?

Then there is the matter of irreducible complexity. It would seem that there are certain ‘all-or-nothing’ vital organs that makes evolution impossible. Advocates of irreducible complexity argue that some biological functions, like the human eye, could not have evolved through slight incremental modifications. It needs all the parts to be there all at once, or else it doesn’t function. So the eye, such advocates say, could not have come about gradually through natural selection; thus falsifying evolution. Mainstream evolution, however, offers a model that shows how certain organisms evolved rudimentary aspects of an eye gradually, without being totally dysfunctional. Over millions of years, this ‘ancestral eye’ has evolved to be more and more complex, ultimately forming the human eye. Likewise, other examples of irreducible complexity, the mainstream says, turn out not to be irreducible; but like the human eye, reducible and gradual.

A final thing worth pointing out is that just because we are genetically related to chimps isn’t proof in itself of common descent. Otherwise fifty percent of our human genes (though not human DNA) are identical to banana genes, so what does that imply? We’ll leave that one for the party conversation. But on a more serious note, DNA is the reason for a final criticism. Let’s call this the criticism of cellular machinery. Put ever so simply, mainstream evolution states it is DNA that makes protein, and that protein is the building block of all life. However, it turns out that DNA itself requires protein for it to form. So which came first, the chicken or the egg; DNA or protein? Creationist critics of evolution respond with a God of the gaps argument: since science does not know the mechanism for it, it must therefore be God. Scientists do, however, offer the RNA world hypothesis as a possible answer. This suggests that RNA – which is like its sister molecule, DNA, and is present in all biological cells; can synthesise proteins; and carries the DNA instruction code – may have been the first thing to replicate and evolve in the primordial soup (and if not such chains of RNA, then something similar), eventually taking a back seat once DNA came on the scene. But as promising as it seems, such an idea still has obstacles to over come and is still very much a work in progress.

14. Yet with all this astounding science of molecular biology, does it not still beg the question: how do such extraordinary molecular machines perform the task of replication; regulation; transmission of genetic code; and all the other mind boggling functions they perform, through the product of mindless, motiveless mechanicity? To claim that blind, unguided processes produced highly complex biological information, the sort encoded in DNA, is more a leap of faith than it is hard science. To claim that blind chance assembled protein bricks into highly precise blocks of patterns without an ordering principle to guide it, requires far more of a leap of faith than does believing in a theistic account for the origins of life.

The same can be said for ‘natural selection’. The way the Darwinian mystery of natural selection is spoken of today, as being the end explanation for both the existence of life and all its variations, is misleading and false. At best, natural selection selects from already existing stuff. It doesn’t invent the stuff. So while it may be an explanation for the diversity we see in organisms and biological life, it certainly isn’t the ultimate explanation it is often made out to be. It’s the same for ‘random genetic mutations’. Such randomness can only act upon pre-existing stuff to mutate what is already there. Like natural selection, it doesn’t explain the origins of life; nor does it do away with the need for any underlying ordering principle. Theists have every right to be skeptical about blind chance, even if atheists have taken a leap of faith. An old Arabic proverb tells us: al-sarj al-mudhahhab la yaj‘alu’l-himar hisan – ‘The guilded gold saddle doesn’t make a donkey a horse.’

15. Let’s park such criticisms and take the theory in its standard form, as taught in colleges and universities, and as found in standard text books on the subject. Let’s not get into trying to debunk the science. Rather, let’s take the mainstream claims at face value: given that the knowledge needed to argue, counter argue, or even counter the counter argument, requires immense expertise that most of us simply don’t possess. At best, we might know the overall arguments for one view, but not the counter arguments. In Islam, such people might be considered educated followers of the experts, but they are not experts themselves who can evaluate evidences, claims or counter claims with the right systemised method. Until a person can do that, in Islam, such a person is not usually considered an expert in the matter who can make their own informed evaluations. So instead, let’s just take the mainstream claims and postulates of evolutionary theory and ask: What does Islamic theology have to say about it all?

VII. ISLAM AND THE OVERALL THEORY OF EVOLUTION

Having spent some time mapping out what evolution is and how it works, it is time to subject the theory – with all of its facts, claims and speculations – to an Islamic theological critique.

16. So as Muslims (whose beliefs, values and ideals are rooted in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), does Islam allow us to believe in the theory of evolution? Justice and scholastic integrity demand that we not generalise, but rather take to what our scholars term tafsil – detail, nuance or distinction. So let’s break the question down. If we are talking about microevolution: life forms adapting to their surrounding via genetic changes in order to better survive, but remaining the same species, then Islamic theology has no problem with this at all. This is provided such microevolution has sound evidence to support it (which it does), and is tied to the following three beliefs: [i] That God alone is the creator of all things and all changes. [ii] That nothing happens without God willing it to happen. [iii] Causes and effects are created by God and have no autonomy from Him (this includes the mechanism of ‘natural selection’ and ‘random genetic mutation’). So with such conditions, to deny this type of evolution is Islamically unjustified and empirically uncalled for.

17. As for macroevolution, one species slowly evolving into another species over long periods of time (not necessarily in a linear fashion, but through branches and sub-branches), then this is something we as Muslim can believe in and is theologically possible from an Islamic viewpoint: provided the science is sound; the above three conditions are believed; and that we not include human beings in this. Macroevolution might be rejected in terms of the science, either out of ignorance (willfull or otherwise); confirmation bias; or different interpretations of the actual evidences. But it cannot be rejected in terms of Islamic theology and what is rationally possible for God to do. This is especially so when Islam’s Revelation says nothing for or against the notion of non-human evolution, thus leaving it up to worldly evidence.

The long and the short of it all is that one who believes that it is impossible for God, through His divine will and creative act, to cause one species to evolve into another, through whatever mechanism or timescale He choses, has a defect in their grasp of Islamic theology and of what is rationally possible (mumkin) and impossible (mustahil) for God.9 To outrightly deny non-human macroevolution is theologically erroneous and incorrect, and possibly at odds with a large body of empirical evidence. And Allah knows best. But since we are taking evolution’s claims at face value, then for Muslims there would be no theological obstacle in believing in macroevolution, as long as we exclude humans from this process. For the Qur’an has something very specific to say about that.

18. A similar answer to the above applies to questions such as: What does Islam say about dinosaurs or about life on other planets? Since neither the Qur’an nor the Holy Prophet have pronounced on such issues, not by way of affirmation or negation, then it is less a religious question and more one which depends upon secular or scientific evidence. If the evidence for it is sound; i.e. if it constitutes sound knowledge, one can believe in these things; if not, then not (or at least suspend judgement). In Islam’s epistemology (madarik al-‘ulum), knowledge is defined as true, justified belief and is arrived at by one of three sources: truthful reports (khabari), empirical proof (hissi) or rational inquiry (‘aqli).10

VIII. ISLAM AND HUMAN EVOLUTION

19 – The Qur’an has quite explicit things to proclaim about Man’s origins. In one verse, it states: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am creating man from clay, from formed mud. When I have shaped him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall prostrate before him.’ [Q.15:28-29] This creation, along with this spirit or ruh being infused into him, was fashioned in a unique manner, unlike other humans: ‘O Satan! What prevents you from prostrating to that which I created with My hands?’ [Q.38:75] The Qur’an also says that Adam was intelligent and articulate: He taught Adam the names of all things … then He said: ‘O Adam, tell them their names.’ [Q.2:31-33] We also have the verse rebutting the false belief in Jesus’ alleged divinity: for if his virgin, fatherless birth is a miracle pointing to his divine status, then Adam was born without any parents; by the same logic, he should be more divine! The likeness of Jesus with God is like that of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, ‘Be’, and he was. [Q.3:59]

20. The voice of Islamic theology is best captured in an authentic hadith which says that on the Day of Judgement humanity, in their state of trepedation, will seek intercession with God’s prophets for judgement to commence. They shall start by first coming to Adam, where they begin their plea to him, saying: ‘You are Adam, father of humanity. God created you with His own hand, caused you to dwell in His garden, ordered the angels to prostrate to you and taught you the names of all things …’11 So from the above perspectives, to believe the first human being was born via the evolutionary process, eventually birthed by two proto-human parents, is to be at complete odds with what the Qur’an explicitly reveals about Adam, upon whom be peace.

21. Some, in recent times, have claimed that the Quranic story of Adam is only a metaphor or allegorical, and that the apparent meaning is not intended. That the account contains profound symbolism and metaphors of a deeply spiritual and existential nature isn’t in question. What is objected to, though, is to deny the apparent (zahir) meaning. Scholars agree that the basic rule in interpreting the Qur’an is to understand it according to the zahir – its obvious and apparent meanings, without recourse to a figurative or metaphorical one (ta’wil), unless there is proof to warrant it. That is, the apparent meaning – ‘the meaning that strikes the listener in the manner of a spontaneous understanding’12 – is taken to be the correct one, provided there is no external indicator (qarinah) to state otherwise. The rationale is that since the Qur’an was revealed in clear Arabic, the apparent meaning that Arabs of the prophetic age would have immediately grasped from the text, cannot be ignored without firm proof. Even then, verses with apparent meanings are open to grades of clarity and textual explicitness. Here qualified legalists will speak of explicit meanings (‘ibarat al- nass), implict meanings (isharat al-nass), inferred meanings (dalalat al-nass) and required meanings (iqtida al-nass).

22. The Qur’an seems to have gone out of its way to inform us about the various states the clay underwent in Adam’s formation, tallying with the various stages in his creation. We read: He created him from dust [Q.3:59], from clay of moulded mud [Q.15:26, 28], of potter’s clay [Q.55:14], of sticky clay [Q.37:11], from a product of mud [Q.23:12]. It is hard to see how all this could be a metaphor or allegory. The language, for one, is far too vivid; the detail far too explicit. Instead, what the Qur’an is trying to bring home to the reader is the factualness of the event: that it isn’t pious fiction; that there was a human being called Adam; and that he was created uniquely.

23. One more reason why the story of Adam is not a symbolic metaphor. When the Qur’an says: God chose Adam, Noah, the Family of Abraham, and the Family of ‘Imran over all other people. [Q.3:33], are we to believe that since Adam wasn’t a real person, but rather a fictional one representing deep religious symbolism, that the same is true for Noah, Abraham, ‘Imran and their families; given they are all mentioned together in the above verse? Again, when the Qur’an states that: The likeness of Jesus with God is like that of Adam.[Q.3:59], so is Jesus also meant to be read as a non-literal, allegorical story? Certainly not! The Quranic references to Adam are too specific and too numerous to be read as a metaphor! Rather, they are what they are: portraits of actual events that occurred in Man’s pre-history; reminding us we are creatures of flesh and blood, fashioned from the earth, condemned, ultimately, to fall back into it; filled with unappeasable desires we are constantly tempted to satisfy at the lowest level; compelled to live beneath ourselves, save for the Grace of God.

In short: I hope this has demonstrated that reading the story of Adam’s creation as pure metaphor is a serious error, and that for those who insist on doing so, the evidences showing the fallacy of this notion have the misfortune of being pretty overwhelming. The starting point of any sound interpretation of the Holy Qur’an is the original language in which it was revealed: lucid, perspicuous and clearly expressed Arabic. If there is to be any departure from the default, zahir reading of the text to an allegorical one, there should be an evidence to warrant doing so in terms of the grammatical, semantic or stylistic complexities of the Arabic; or due to sound corroborative indicators. Otherwise allegorical readings, without a systematic, well-defined hermeneutic, are likely to be nothing more than whimsical misguidance.

IX. THEISTIC EVOLUTION, IS THAT THE ANSWER?

24. A number of eminent scientists who are also theists or believer in God, have sought to square their religious beliefs with their scientific worldview through “Theistic Evolution.” This, as Francis Collins says, ‘is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers … It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II.’13

A typical account of theistic evolution says that while the precise mechanism of how life on earth originated remains unknown, once life did emerge and once the process of evolution did get underway, no divine intervention was required. It is as if God made the evolution “clock,” initially wound it up, and then just left it to unwind by itself without any involvement. So God sparked-off life on earth, choosing the elegant mechanism of evolution to do the main work and bring about earth’s biological diversity and complexity. Collins, says: ‘This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world. It is also entirely compatible with the great monotheistic religions of the world.’14

25. Unfortunately, this isn’t how Islam’s mainstream theology sees it. The core objection to theistic evolution lies in its premise that once evolution got going, the divine hand withdrew. But such causal autonomy from God flies in the face of certain core beliefs in the Qur’an. Firstly, it goes against verses which tell us: Say: ‘God is the creator of everything.’ [Q.13:16] This includes our actions as well as our moments of stillness: God created you, and all that you do. [Q.37:96] That is, no time elapses except that God, as the Creator (al-Khaliq), is creating; as the Bestower (al-Wahhab) is bestowing; as the All-Merciful (al-Rahman) is sending down His mercy; etc. Secondly, that nothing can happen independently of God’s will. Everything happens by His decree and will, and His will is accomplished; what He wills for them happens and what He does not will, does not happen. For believers, nothing is random or fortuitous. Nothing occurs by ‘chance.’ Nor do causes and effects have an autonomous independence from the divine will. Thirdly, along with giving cause and effect autonomy to evolutionary processes, theistic evolution assigns to Adam proto-human parents; it doesn’t account for his unique creation; it fails to account for his knowledge and articulate speech; and it plays fast and loose with the Quranic language in terms of what is or is not allegorical.

26. This is not to say that Islamic theology denies causes and effects, rather it denies that causes have effects in and of themselves; for God is the creator of all things. For someone to literally believe that ‘random’ mutation or ‘natural’ selection have a causal independence from the will of God, as most scientists do, would be disbelief (kufr). Islamic theology, however, grants a dispensation to use certain phrases figuratively; like when someone says, ‘the food filled me up’ or ‘the fire burnt me’, providing one does not believe such things to have causal autonomy from the will of God. Expressions such as ‘nature does such and such’ are also, in all likelihood, included in the above dispensation. But to believe in the literalness of such expressions would be to set-up a ‘partner’ with God in His lordship. Or to employ Islam’s theological vocabulary, it is shirk fi’l-rububiyyah, or shirk fi’l-asbab.

As for the rule in respect to worldly causes (asbab), it runs as follows: ‘To rely on worldly causes is shirk in God’s oneness (tawhid), to deny their efficacy is deficiency in intellect; to shun their use is mockery of the shari‘ah.15

X. HOW DO WE ACCOUNT FOR THE HOMINID FOSSILS?

If Adam was the first man, and wasn’t birthed through the usual evolutionary method, how can we explain the hominid fossil records going back hundreds of thousands of years? In trying to square the evolutionary circle, a few responses have been advanced by contemporary Muslims:

27. The first has been called the bashr-insan dichotomy. In a nutshell, it says that when bashr is used in the Qur’an, it refers to the evolutionary hominids that in their physical form resemble humans. Insan, on the other hand, is used when this bashr has evolved intelligence and metaphysical capacity. Those who advocate this view suggest that at some point God selected one of these bashr-hominids and endowed it with a ruh, thus creating the first insan who went on to populate the earth, replacing all other bashr-hominids.

This thesis, however, is problematic. For one thing, it attributes parental agency to Adam and so belies the Qur’an. Another is that the bashr-insan distinction is a flawed one. There are some verses of the Qur’an where this peculiar notion runs aground. For example, we read in the Holy Qur’an: That was because their Messengers kept coming to them with clear proofs, but they retorted: ‘Shall mere mortals guide us?’ [Q.64:6] Those who rejected God’s prophets complained that they were mortal, bashr. So how can prophets be described as bashr, which in the above dichotomy refers to hominids who have yet to develop intelligence and cognition? Also, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is told to say to the faith deniers: ‘Glory be to my Lord! Am I but a mortal messenger?’ [Q.17:93] Again the word bashr, mortal, is used. And just to show that bashr and insan are synonymous and equivalent, as per classical mainstream scholarship, we read about Mary, mother of Jesus: ‘So eat and drink, and be consoled; and if you meet any person say: “I have vowed a fast [of silence] to the All-Merciful, and will not speak to any human being this day.”’ [Q.19:26] So bashr; person, and insan; human being, have been used interchangeably.

28. So if the Adamic story is not a metaphor, and if the bashr-insan dichotomy doesn’t quite do the trick, then what does? What can affirm Adam’s miraculous nature and also affirm the hominid lifeforms that roamed the earth hundreds of thousands of years before us? What asserts the truth of the Qur’an as well as the hard to ignore facts of the hominid fossil records? Well one plausible way to do it, that does not involve contorting the classical Arabic language to force it to fit scientific sensibilities nor inventing far-fetched explanations at odds with clear-cut Quranic verses and Muslim scholarly consensus (ijma‘), is to propose: Human exceptionalism. In other words, at some point when God had caused the earth to be polluted by pockets of hominids, creating them and everything else through the mechanism of evolution, God, in His wisdom then created human kind; starting with the direct, miraculous creation of Adam. Having put him on earth; and having taught him speech and suffused into him a ruh – endowing him with worldly and metaphysical intelligence – He caused Adam along with his wife and offspring to populate the earth, either causing other hominids of the Homo genus to become extinct before their arrival on earth or after. This is something God informed humanity about through the agency of scripture and prophethood, even if it might not be determinable by science.

If we recall in point no.11 that Homo sapiens are said to have become modern and reached behavioural modernity about 40,000 years ago, we might further speculate that Adam was the leap from primitive Homo sapiens – who, though physically and biologically resembling us, were devoid of a ruh and so almost indistinguishable from other hominids – to us modern Sapiens. Being endowed with a ruh became the game changer: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am creating man from clay, from formed mud. So when I have shaped him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall prostrate before him.’ [Q.15:28-29]

29.  That God could have introduced Adam, this modern Homo sapien, into the mix at the right time; with the correct genetic make-up; and as the significant branch of the various Homo branches (that evolved from much earlier common ancestors, rewinding the branching tree metaphor) is a theological possibility and something which science does not disprove. As for why God would chose to do so in this manner, it isn’t in the realms of science to ask or answer. As for a theological response, it would be to say: He cannot be questioned about what He does, but they shall be questioned. [Q.21:23] Or to offer a balder reply: Why not?!

30. That there were beings who in some way resembled Adam, and who dwelt on earth before his arrival, can be inferred from this passage of the Qur’an: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am setting on the Earth a vicegerent.’ They inquired: ‘Will you place therein one that shall work corruption and shed blood, while we praise You and sanctify Your name?’ He said: ‘Surely I know what you know not,’ [Q.2:30] Now how did the angels know what man’s nature would be like (working corruption, shedding blood)? One widespread opinion in the tafsir literature is that there were beings resembling Adam who inhabited the earth prior to him. Ibn Juzayy wrote about the verse: ‘It is said that there were jinns inhabiting the earth and causing corruption, so God sent against them an army of angels to slay them. The angels thus made an analogy between them and humans.’16

On the other hand, as it has not been confirmed by any explicit verse, prophetic hadith or scholarly consensus – as far as I’m aware – that these creatures were in fact jinn, there’s room, perhaps, to suggest they were hominids or primitive (pre-ruhHomo sapiens. And that what the Qur’an calls insan, bashr and Adam is modern Homo sapiens endowed with a special quality called Spirit. For once infused with this ruh, this conscious-giving Spirit, it was no longer only an animal whose physical and psychological processes were all directed towards purely material and earthly ends. For once Man was ensouled with this ruh, it caused to descend upon him, both on his psychology and his physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me’; which could look upon itself as an object that knew God; and which could make judgements of truth, beauty and goodness. That is, it had the ability to be self-conscious, God-conscious and value-conscious. Whatever the truth, what I propose is only food for thought. It isn’t intended to be an iron-clad assertion. And in keeping with Islamic pietistic norms, I will remark at this point: wa’Llahu a‘lam – ‘And God knows best’.

CONCLUSION

Of course, we don’t need religious faith to do science. The religious faith (or lack of it) of a scientist who makes a discovery isn’t proven by the discovery. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, or Newton’s law of gravity, no more validate theism than does Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double-helix prove atheism. What science does repeatedly demonstrate is that discoveries are made without having to necessarily assume there is a God, even if some people are inspired to do science by their religious faith. No doubt, both theists and atheist do bring their own philosophical assumptions to science. Naturalism or materialism are the preferred atheistic assumptions. That there’s an ordering principle behind the universe; behind how conscious life arose from lifeless matter; and behind why there is something rather than nothing is the theistic one. The question of whether science points to theism or atheism, that’s still being passionately and vigorously debated. What scientists must avoid doing is to assume that because science demonstrates a mechanism for a particular natural phenomenon, that there is therefore no agent behind the mechanism. For mechanism and agency aren’t of the same category. Such a reductionist outlook is unbefitting, although Albert Einstein had a point when he wrote: ‘It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher.’

1. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Longmans, 1986), 1.

2. Am I a Monkey? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 20.

3. ibid., 20-21.

4. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth (Great Britain: Black Swan, 2010), 9-10; Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 141-2.

5. The Language of God, 94.

6. As stated in Ayala, Am I A Monkey?, 50-51.

7. The Blind Watchmaker, 14.

8. See: J.C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), 40; A. Wilson, If God, Then What? (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 66-9.

9. In respect to what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin, ja’iz) and impossible (mustahil) for God, in Islamic theology, consult: al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 2016), 1:263; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 68-75.

10. See: al-Saffarini,  Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 3:736-46.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.7516.

12. Consult: Ramic, Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 198.

13. The Language of God, 199.

14. ibid., 201.

15. Cited in: Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:696. Also cf. Keller, Evolution Theory & Islam (Cambridge: The Muslim Academic Trust, 1999), 8-9.

16. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Makkah: Dar Taybah, 2018), 1:299.

On True Salafism, False Salafism & Ijma‘ Theology (2/2)

Keen readers of the blog might realise that the last time I addressed the issue of Salafism and orthodoxy was when this blog first started, back in 2012. I haven’t returned to the subject till now. The reason for that is straightforward. This is a day and age, and it’s probably been like this for a considerably long time, that doesn’t respond well to correction. In this age of religious uproar, where souls are weak and arguments are more charged with ego or partisanship (tahazzub, hizbiyyah) than ever before, correctives seldom work. It’s an age when we find it incredibly difficult or agonising to really be open-minded to ideas outside of our own group-think or bubble. Trying to uproot erroneous notions all too often makes things worse nowadays. Egos get riled up, people take it personally, and positions usually become further entrenched. One hadith informs us that: ‘You must command good and forbid evil, until you see greed being obeyed, desires being followed, worldliness being preferred and every person being impressed with his own opinion.’28 So it’s a road we should seldom walk down; and when we do, we should do so reluctantly, wisely and warily.

Those who have yet to read Part One of the discussion are urged to do so first (it may be read here). It sets the context for this final part. The centrepiece of that first discussion were these words of Ibn Taymiyyah, when speaking about the heterodox, innovated sects: ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.29

These words of his were also central to the overall discussion: ‘Ijma‘ is the third fundamental which is relied upon in affairs of knowledge and faith. With these three fundamentals they weigh-up all that people say or do in terms of religion, be it inwardly or outwardly.’30

Lastly, this Taymiyyan statement is worth reiterating: ‘This is why the scholars of Islam concur upon declaring as an innovator one who contravenes the likes of these usul, contrary to someone who differs in issues of ijtihad.’31

Having covered three sections in the first part of the blog, and mostly speaking of Salafism in the abstract rather than discussing specific salafi individuals or groups, here are the concluding four sections:

IV

26 – So what is true Salafism? By as early as the fourth Islamic century, we find some scholars using the salafi label to describe certain scholars. So we see the historian Ibn Hayyan say about Isma‘il b. Hammad, the grandson of Imam Abu Hanifah: ‘They said that Isma‘il b. Hammad b. Abu Hanifah was a true salafi.’32 Or we see al-Dhahabi write in his biographical notice on Ibn Hubayrah: ‘He was versed in the [Hanbali] madhhab, Arabic, prosody, was salafi, athari.33 Of al-Akhna’i, al-Safadi said: ‘He was a lover of reports, salafi in approach.’34 Anyone prepared to do the academic spadework will discover that while such usage of the label ‘salafi’, both pre and post Ibn Taymiyyah, does make appearances in the medieval tabaqat-biographical literature, it does so infrequently.

27 – Another ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ point about the salafi tag is that historically, prior to about the mid-1970s, its use was very specific. Dipping into the tabaqat works again, and we come across al-Dhahabi saying about Imam Ibn al-Salah: ‘He possessed remarkable majesty, solemnity, gravity, eloquence and beneficial knowledge. He was firm in faith, wholly salafi, of correct creed … He believed in Allah and what came from Allah, in terms of His names and attributes.’35 And of Abu’l-Bayan Naba b. Muhammad b. Mahfuz, al-Dhahabi says: ‘Shaykh Abu’l-Bayan, may Allah be pleased with him; shaykh of the Bayaniyyah [sufi] tariqah. He was of eminent status, a scholar who acted on his knowledge, a renunciant (zahid), devout, an expert of the [Arabic] language, a jurist of the Shafi‘i school, salafi in creed, and a caller to the Sunnah.’36 And in al-Safadi’s description of Abu Ishaq al-Kinani: ‘He was righteous, benevolent, abundant in the dhikr of Allah, salafi in creed (salafi al-mu‘taqad).’37 And Ibn Hajr on Muhammad b al-Qasim al-Misri: ‘He was the chief of the Malikis in Egypt, and one who had best memorised the madhhab among them. Versed in history, highly cultured, very religious, deeply devout … He was salafi in creed.’38

28 – The above quotes show how the salafi epithet was applied to scholars who, after the rise of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi theological schools, continued to stick to what they believed was the ijma‘ of the salaf in terms of creed (‘aqidah). Thus the designation, salafi mu‘taqad – ‘salafi in creed.’ Such purist scholars (and it was scholars given this tag, not laymen) were marked by two traits: [i] rejecting the rationalising methods (or most of it) of kalam theologians and, [ii] rejecting figurative interpretation (ta’wil) with regards to the divine attributes (sifat). For such salafi scholars, both these matters were fiercely repudiated by the ijma‘ of the salaf, as per reports related from them.39 Being salafi didn’t mean rejection of following a fiqh school, or being anti-madhhab or anti-taqlid, or kicking the whole of sufism (tasawwuf) into the long grass; as the above quotations clearly demonstrate. This was never the stamp of authenticity of true Salafism, but it would become the stock in trade of the false one.

29 – The past Sunni imams who did allow figurative interpretations (ta’wil) in the divine attributes did so, not because they believed it was lawful to reject an ijma‘, especially of the salaf, but because they didn’t believe there was an ijma‘. Typifying this stance is Imam al-Nawawi, who wrote: ‘They disagreed about the verses and reports to do with the divine attributes, should they be discussed by way of figurative interpretation or not? Some said that they should be, as befits them. This is the more well-known of the two views of the kalam theologians. Others said they should not be figuratively interpreted. Instead, one withholds from speaking about their meanings and entrusts knowledge of them to Allah, exalted is He, along with believing in Allah’s transcendence; exalted is He … And this was the path of the salaf, or [rather] the majority of them …’40 A similar reason is given for using kalam, as I’ve discussed in my article about Hanbalis & kalam.

30 – Given the above, we may say that all religious issues can fit into one of three categories:. Either it is one about which there is an undisputed ijma‘ (be it explicitly or tacitly stated); or it is an ijtihadi one where scholars agree to differ; or it’s one where consensus is claimed by one group of scholars, but disputed by another group: that is, there is no ijma‘ about the ijma‘. In the latter case, one does their best to do what is right, as per Allah’s statement: Fear Allah as best as you can. [Q.64:16] The agreed upon (mujma‘ ‘alayhi) issues, be they beliefs or actions, form the usul; and differing from them is forbidden and is considered sectarian splitting; the divider between ahl al-sunnah and ahl al-bid‘ah. Those differed over (mukhtalif fihi) issues form the furu‘ wherein the differences are valid and celebrated, and cannot be censured.

31 – So why does this all matter? Without being crystal clear in terms of what true Salafism was in the past, one is in real jeopardy of unwittingly following the false Salafism of the present. The stakes are that high! If, under the name of Salafism, or while claiming to be salafi, divisions are occurring over ijtihadi issues, or all of sufism – lock, stock and barrel – is being rejected as deviant, or following a madhhab is being seen as a sign of misguidance, these are perhaps tell tale signs that false Salafism is what is being followed. The way to make the necessary u-turn, after making tawbah, is by making ijma‘ the cornerstone, and by giving the mujma‘ ‘alayhi and mukhtalif fihi issues their due roles and rights. As for expanding the salafi tag beyond issues of ijma‘ (which are usually, but not exclusively, creedal), then this novel departure from what had been the norm for close to a millennium is what is discuss in the next section.

V

32 – Ibn Kathir stated of the great Shafi‘i scholar, Ibn Surayj, that ‘he was upon the school of the salaf (wa kana ‘ala madhhab al-salaf).’41 And al-Dhahabi said about al-Zabidi: kana hanafiyyan salafiyyan – ‘He was a salafi Hanafi.’42 To be clear and to press home this vital point: Being salafi in the classical sense of the label had nothing at all to do with fiqh or suluk/tasawwuf. Instead, it had everything to do with a purist, more fideist creed: one which early Hanbalis are usually associated with. This is how true Salafism was always understood until its radical reconstruction around the mid-twentieth century.

33 – In the early twentieth century, the salafi concept made an innovative leap from being the madhhab of the salaf in creed; that is, the ‘aqidah that the salaf had a general consensus upon, to becoming something much broader: Salafism (salafiyyah). Salafism, in the 1920s, was still work in progress. Its ideologisation was still growing. By the 1970s; and if not, the early 80s, Salafism would settle on being the all-encompassing thing that it is today. Today’s Salafism isn’t just about creed. It now encompasses fiqh issues, political stances and outlooks, and even the way you dress or pray. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that as contemporary Salafism became more and more encompassing, it became more and more intolerant too. It is now the norm to be divested of one’s salafi-ness, oftentimes at the drop of a hat. And one doesn’t have to have violated an ijma‘ for one’s salafi-ness to be questioned. It nearly always happens on matters of bonafide ijtihad. This isn’t a straw man depiction of today’s Salafism. It’s how it actually is.

34 – This jump from employing the word salafi as an adjective (salafi mu‘taqad) to using it as a substantive or as an abstract noun (salafiyyah/Salafism) seems to have been driven, in significant part, with Muslim reformers pushing back, not just against Western colonialism in the latter part of the nineteenth or the first half of the twentieth century, but against the perceived fossilisation of the ‘late Sunni tradition’ too.43 By the 1980s, the idea of Salafism was well enough constructed for one of the most celebrated scholars and advocates of the late Sunni tradition (‘Traditional Islam’), Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti, to write his widely read anti-salafi tract, Salafiyyah – ‘Salafism’ (1988).

35 – While al-Albani is credited as the scholar who most popularised this new, all-inclusive idea of Salafism, he was not the first to invent it. That distinction, as the historical evidence seems to suggest, goes to the Egyptian scholar-cum-activist and professor of philosophy, Mustafa Hilmi. Against the backdrop of the spread of Western secular thought throughout the Islamic world, and the rise of Islamic modernism as well as a more politicised reading of Islam as the two counters to it, Hilmi took the identifiable madhhab of the salaf and invested it with a broader, more roomy scope to arrive at Salafism. Trained in the secular humanities, and fully devoted to the creed of the salaf, Hilmi co-opted some of the jargon of the humanities to express this totalising vision of Salafism in his book, Qawa‘id al-Manhaj al-Salafi – ‘Rules of the Salafi Methodology.’ (1976) and his next outing, al-Salafiyyah Bayna al-‘Aqidah al-Islamiyyah wa’l-Falsafah al-Gharbiyyah – ‘Salafism: Between Islamic Creed and Western Philosophy’ (1983).

36 – The designation manhaj (method, methodology) was already something of a buzzword in Western academic circles in 1960s Egypt. To speak of method was to speak of intellectual rigour and scholarly exactitude in a scientific idiom. The popularity of the term manhaj would soon extend beyond academic circles to include activists in the field of political Islam (Islamism, as it is now known); largely through the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Hilmi, inspired by Qutb’s usage of the term, constructed Salafism to represent an all-encompassing religious idea, or rather ideology. The jewel in the crown of his reframing of Salafism was the idea of manhaj al-salaf. Hilmi himself said in defining it: ‘Salafism became an all-inclusive technical term in designating the way of the salaf in grasping and applying Islam.’44

37 – Although the phrase ‘manhaj of the salaf’ was used before Hilmi (al-Albani used it occasionally around the 1950s, and Hamid al-Fiqi utilised it earlier still, in the late 1920s), it appears that there is no concrete evidence to suggest it was used as an all-inclusive concept till Hilmi employed it as such. Once he did, and once his Qawa‘id al-Manhaj gained wider reception (it earned him the King Faysal International Prize in Islamic studies, in 1985), the concept of being salafi would never be quite the same again. If salafi ‘aqidah is what divided salafis from other Muslims, then salafi manhaj would be significantly responsible for setting apart salafis from other salafis. Intra-salafi bickering and splitting and bigotry would soon become proverbial, and a perpetual air of enmity, mistrust and wariness between rival salafi factions would gradually be seen as business as usual.

VI

38 – For twentieth century salafi reformers, salafi manhaj would have an edge over the original notion of madhhab al-salaf or salafi mu‘taqad. Talk of manhaj allowed a level of flexibility (and some would argue innovation) that madhhab or ‘aqidah did not. One could now talk about an alleged salafi manhaj in fiqh, but not really a salafi madhhab. This permitted such reformers to defend their anti-madhhab and non-madhhab approach to Islamic jurisprudence – with all the religious anarchy, DIY fatwas and fitnah this would unleash. When placed in the deftly critical hands of someone like al-Albani, manhaj could be wielded to maximum effect. Other senior salafi scholars, like Ibn Baz, said there was no distinction between manhaj and ‘aqidah; that they are, in fact, synonymous.45

39 – Al-Albani would use manhaj to distinguish ‘purist’ salafis from half-baked or dubious ones. He categorised scholars and activists who believed in the salafi creed, but who were not ‘pure’ across the board, as being salafi in ‘aqidah, but not in manhaj. What did that actually mean? Were such people now outside of the saved-sect? Had such people violated an established ijma‘? Had their salafi-ness now been nullified? This wasn’t clear then, and is still unclear even today. What is quite clear is that as soon as someone like al-Albani doubted someone’s manhaj, such people were almost invariable treated by the salafi community as if they were deviant innovators. Weighing affairs with ijma‘ theology now took a back seat to weighing issues according to this newly invented manhaj. If not ijma‘, then by what golden standard was it decided whether someone was ‘off the manhaj’ or not? If no recorded ijma‘ had been contravened, was rebuking, censuring or questioning peoples’ orthodoxy in matters of ijtihad the way of the salaf? Can this be true Salafism? Among salafis, anarchy and ambiguity reign in this quarter too.

40 – From the 1980s, being a ‘pure’ salafi was becoming an uphill task. Not only did creed have to be correct, but fiqh ideas, epistemology, political outlooks and, over time, dress code too, had to pass the manhaj check list. All this can be seen in the multi-volume compilation (covering over five and a half thousand pages) of Shaykh al-Albani’s manhaj question and answers: Jami‘ Turath al-‘Allamah al-Albani fi’l-Manhaj wa’l-Ahdath al-Kubra (2011). It is one of Salafism’s biggest ironies, then, that Hilmi’s own salafi-ness was decided on the issue of manhaj. In the Jami‘, we see al-Albani querying about Hilmi in one such Q&A session: ‘Is he salafi? … Mustafa Hilmi a salafi? … What is the proof of his Salafism?’46 For most purist salafis in the know, that pretty much sealed Hilmi’s fate. Even if Hilmi did ascribe to the salafi ‘aqidah, his commitment to philosophical ideas and concepts would have excluded him from being a purist salafi in manhaj; as per the growing checklist.

41 – Let’s visit a few more examples of manhaj’s ability to include and exclude, as deployed by al-Albani. In the Jami‘, we find one reason to suspect a person’s salafi-ness is being loyal to an Islamic party, like the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimun): this constituted hizbiyyah, ‘factional partisanship’. Such a person might be salafi in some matters, while ikhwani in other matters; and hence their Salafism was seriously tainted at best.47 Being too political; that is, putting political activism over gaining sound knowledge and nurturing oneself and others on such knowledge (something that al-Albani called the manhaj of tasfiyah and tarbiyah) was deviation from the manhaj too.48 It was, however, allowed to cooperate with such groups and parties, with the condition that it be on the basis of the Book, Sunnah and manhaj of the salaf.49

42 – These manhaj markers aren’t without their merits or their scriptural basis. In truth, they had good scriptural support. The problem was that they were too generic, lacking shari‘ah nuances. For what could be said, in the case of Islamic parties, of some learned person with salafi ‘aqidah, who felt it was their duty to focus on political activism, with a view to steering it aright so as not to leave a vacuum for unfettered emotions or egotistical rage to run wild; wisely injecting into the activism sound shari‘ah guidance? When has the red line of too much politics been crossed? Is it hizbiyyah? Has salafi-ness or orthodoxy been soiled, contaminated or rendered void because of it?  If so, again, where are the scales with which all this is weighed? Where is the ijma‘? Moreover, would activism of Muslim minorities living in Western democracies have the same, or slightly different guidelines than activism in Muslim majority countries? Is there only one absolutist answer to each one of these questions, or is it likely to be a case of varying ijtihads in such highly complicated areas of human life?

43 – Once the manhaj had been questioned at this top level, it would filter down to the salafi foot soldiers in its usual reductive, simplistic fashion. The familiar psychology will then play out: backbiting; name-calling; slandering; disabusing this fellow Muslim of their sanctity and orthodoxy; bullying the faithful, where needed, so they fall in line with the latest manhaj fatwa, correction or u-turn; ideological intimidation of those who may have lingering doubts about the new manhaj stance they must adopt in terms of who’s now on or off; and, of course, the panic, excitement and PDFs generated in the process. It’s all part of the bog standard expressions of ungodliness that inevitably ensue. And no one asks the godly question: What clear sin has been committed by this person to warrant all this kerfuffle against him in the first place?

44 – Imam Ibn Taymiyyah once wrote: ‘If an instructor or a teacher insists that a person be boycotted, discredited, their reputation be damaged, or that they be expelled, it must be seen: If he has committed a sin in the eyes of the shari‘ah, he is punished according to the degree of the sin; but no more. But if he hasn’t, then it is not permissible to punish him in any way, just because the teacher or others wish it. It is not for teachers to disunite the people or to do that which will sow enmity or rancour between them. Instead, they should be like brothers co-operating on goodness and godliness; as Allah, Exalted is He, says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2]’50

45 – Back to the Jami‘, where we find al-Albani offering the following sartorial criticism (in the context of Muslims living in majority Muslim countries, in the 1970s or 80s): That most leading Muslim activists and Islamists would imitate a western dress code, and oftentimes have no beards or barely a beard. For al-Albani, as for other salafis, this moved from being a fiqhi matter into a problem of manhaj.51 And then there was the dilemma of so-called salafi fiqh. Al-Albani insisted that, while following a madhhab or Sunni law-school was permissible and was better than following cowboy muftis with zero or half-baked learning in fiqh and fatwa, the true salafi way was not to be confined to one fiqh school. It was for this reason he declared Shaykh Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab to be salafi in ‘aqidah, but not in fiqh; since he limited himself to the Hanbali school (and a few tarjihat of Ibn Taymiyyah), not being an independent researcher in fiqh matters.52 This, of course, earned him the anger of certain other salafis, in certain quarters of the salafi world. It also proclaimed that Salafism demands the act of tarjih or ijtihad in fiqh: a volatile ingredient in the recipe of religious anarchy. It suggested, too, that the classically accepted view of someone being a salafi-Hanbali or salafi-Hanafi, as per the previous scholarly biographies, was somehow false, off-key, or at best, semi-Salafism. It would appear that classical notions of Salafism are open to criticism, but newer, contemporary notions of Salafism are not.

46 – Why should this all matter? The value we ascribe to words has a powerful way of moulding the way we think, construct ideas, view the world, or interact and govern others. Because contemporary Salafism – i.e. today’s idea of being salafi – is generally seen as a total orientation that embraces the entire gamut of the religious personality, we must be careful not to project this inclusiveness back in time, imaging Salafism has always been like this. It most certainly has not! Instead, it is part product of the many forces that gave rise to various other twentieth century isms. This is particularly so with the idea of salafi manhaj. With its arrival, no person’s salafi-ness, sanctity or honour was any longer safe from ijma‘-less accusations. Furthermore, once a religious issue is linked with manhaj, in the salafi mind, the issue then becomes one of orthodoxy (instead of seeing if the issue is actually one of usul or furu‘). And when conflating usul with furu‘, or the mujma‘ ‘alayhi with the mukhtalif fihi, or issues of ijma‘ with valid ijtihad – once blurring the distinction between such issues itself becomes a consistent, well-entrenched manhaj, or methodology, then how can that not be false Salafism?

VII

47 – Around the last decade, or perhaps even less, before Shaykh al-Albani died (in 1999), he was asked about the state of Salafism, in general; and specifically in Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi. His reply: ‘I say: regrettably the salafi da‘wah, right now, is in turmoil (inna al-da‘wah al-salafiyyah al-an, ma‘a’l-asaf, fi idtirab). I attribute this cause to the hastiness of many of the Muslim youths in claiming knowledge. He has the audacity to give fatwas, or [declare things to be] haram or halal, before he has knowledge. Some of them, as I have heard many a time, cannot [even] recite a verse from the Qur’an properly, even if the noble mushaf is open in front of him … Many of these people become headstrong and hasty in claiming knowledge or writing [pseudo-scholarly] works; and so this is what makes those who, after not having traversed even half the path of knowledge, but now subscribe to the salafi da‘wah, unfortunately splinter into factions and parties.’53

48 – Further on in the same conversation, the Shaykh mentions the following well-known salaf-report from ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Layla: ‘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 for his brother to suffice him [by responding].’54 He then said: ‘The reason for this is that they feared making a mistake, which others would then fall into. Thus each of them wished they didn’t have to carry such a burden and that another would shoulder this responsibility for him. As for now, the situation is – with immense regret – the total opposite. And the cause of this goes back to a clear reason that I’ve mentioned time and again: That this blossoming which we are now experiencing of the Book, Sunnah and the salafi da‘wah, is in its infancy. So very little time has elapsed for people to reap the fruits of this da‘wah, that some call a blossoming or an awakening, within themselves; namely, by being nurtured on the foundations of the Book and the Sunnah. Then they can benefit from this sound nurturing (tarbiyah), founded upon the Book and the Sunnah, as well as benefit those around them: starting with those closest, then the next closest.’55

49 – The Shaykh then lamented: ‘So the reason why the fruits of this da‘wah have not become apparent is that it is new to the age in which we live. This is why we find the situation to be contrary to what ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Layla narrates about those Companions who were wary of being asked, hoping that someone else would be asked instead … But as for now, we find in many salafi communities, let alone others, that a person who is considered to be the most learned in the gathering is asked a question, only to find so-and-so person has started to speak without being asked, or such-and-such person has begun to answer, without him being asked! What makes them do this? It is love of fame. It’s the “I” syndrome; “I’m here;” that is, “I have knowledge, masha’Llah to me.” This proves that we have not yet been nurtured upon salafi tarbiyah. We have been raised on salafi knowledge, each according to their efforts and striving to acquire it. But as for tarbiyah, we have not yet acquired it as an Islamic, salafi community.’56

50 – Why should this all matter: Perhaps this idtirab; this disarray or turmoil Shaykh al-Albani spoke of has to do with certain aspects of knowledge too; and not only a lack of tarbiyah? Perhaps what is really needed is to return to a pre-manhaj Salafism; one firmly rooted in the distinction between not crossing the boundaries of ijma‘ and being within the bounds of valid ijtihad? For it is not that scholars cannot criticise or disagree with the ijtihad of other scholars. It’s that the one who performed the ijtihad (and the laymen who follow it) cannot be censured, disparaged or declared to have left the Sunni fold; to have violated their orthodox, salafi-ness, unless an ijma’ has actually been contravened.

To conclude: Whilst respect for the salaf is wholly warranted among Muslims, respecting today’s Salafism is a different matter. For much of Salafism today, it would seem, has seeds sown into it to create perpetual schisms. Trading insults with great gusto is what salafis are best known for. Routinely haemorrhaging their own unity, splintering into tinier and tinier cliquey factions, is another. Any veneer of credibility contemporary Salafism might have is largely based on associating it with the fundamental Islamic principle: the obligation upon all Muslims to follow the [ijma‘ of the] salaf.

That Salafism today has totally blurred the distinction between mujma‘ ‘alayhi or “agreed upon” issues and between mukhtalif fihi or the legitimately “differed over” issues, has proven incredibly lethal. Maverick preachers, possessing only a faint grasp of legal or theological doctrines, are now unleashed on the public. Zealous shaykhs, ustadhs or da‘is, ill-equipped to navigate the complex nuances embedded in classical Muslim scholarship, continue to erode and devalue ijma‘ theology. And Salafism, today, for maybe the most part, is fixated on externals; lacking the spiritual or intellectual depth which historically typified orthodoxy. How such a state of affairs came to characterise today’s Salafism is a question that I’ve touched upon, but the finer details must be passed over here.

Three things, then, need attending to urgently by today’s salafis: [i] Being clear about the difference between the usul and furu‘. [ii] Expending far greater effort to know what issues have classically been areas of legitimate difference, and to then train the soul to be tolerant and at ease in such areas of ijtihad and valid differing. [iii] Not filtering the entire scholastic legacy of Islam through the lens of a small band of past scholars, and an even tinier clique of current ones. This task calls for sincerity, sound traditional learning and, above all, reining in the ego. Without these, base metal will never turn into gold; and the lines between false and true Salafism will continue to be blurred or compromised.

Finally, while being acutely aware of the dangers of self-promotion, I hesitantly add that ‘salafism reconsidered’, in the categories section of this blog, might be a good place to find relevant articles for this corrective process.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

28. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3058, saying that the hadith is hasan gharib.

29. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345-6.

30. ibid., 3:157.

31. ibid., 4:425.

32. Akhbar al-Qudat (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, n.d.), 342.

33. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 20:426.

34. Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turtath al-‘Arabi, 2000), 2:194.

35. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 23:142.

36. Tarikh al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 1995), 38:68.

37. Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat, 5:231.

38. Lisan al-Mizan (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 2002), 7:452, no.7322.

39. See my article: Doctrine of the Divine Attributes.

40. Al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2011), 1:439.

41. Tabaqat al-Fuqaha’ al-Shafi‘iyyin, (al-Mansura: Dar al-Wafa’, 2004), 1:185.

42. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 20:317.

43. For the construction of contemporary Salafism, cf. Lauziere, The Making of Salafism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 95-129.

44. Qawa‘id al-Manhaj al-Salafi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005), 176.

45. Consult: Fatawa al-Lajnat al-Da’imah (then presided over by Shaykh Ibn Baz), fatwa no.18870.

46. Jami‘ Turath al-‘Allamah al-Albani fi’l-Manhaj wa’l-Ahdath al-Kubra (Sana: Markaz al-Nu‘man, 2011), 12:163.

47. ibid., 3:22, 41, 123-24.

48. Ibid., 2:434-35.

49. ibid., 3:311.

50. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:15-16.

51. Jami‘, 3:438.

52. See: ‘Id ‘Abbasi, al-Da‘wah al-Salafiyyah wa Mawqifuha min al-Harakat al-Ukhra (Alexandrai: Dar al-Iman, 2002), 28.

53. Jami‘, 1:184.

54. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.

55. Jami‘, 1:186.

56. ibid., 1:186-87.

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