Allah ﷻ informs in the Holy Qur’an: Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14] Although such things are elsewhere spoken of positively in the Qur’an, as blessings for which people should be thankful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet. Unsurprisingly, women top the list. This fact rings loudly in a hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ informed: ‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’1 It’s a warning that only a fool or a fasiq would be keen to overlook or take lightly. Another hadith states: ‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was to do with women.’2
If alcohol breaks inhibitions such that people will sexually behave in ways they usually wouldn’t when they are sober, then the devil is even more potent in removing modesty, boundaries and inhibitions between the sexes. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘A woman is ‘awrah; whenever she goes out, the devil beautifies her.’3
The word ‘awrah, often translated into English as ‘nakedness’, can also mean weakness, vulnerability or something that is unseemly and indecent.4 Women are considered to be ‘awrah because of their desirability. In Islam, the feminine form – desirable, alluring and sensuous in the privacy of the marital home – should not be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves.
Of course, in our e-world awash with sin, porn and the sexualisation of even children, such revealed wisdom is unlikely to be received with the openness it would have done in a not so long ago age. Notions of modesty, decency or respectability with regard to how the sexes should interact are utterly alien to our consumer-driven, sexually-charged culture. To even suggest, as Islam does, that there could be a modest or dignified way of being a ‘lady’ (and, of course, a ‘gentleman’) is to court ridicule or scorn from an often uncritical public: some may even shout misogyny. I’ve previously written on contemporary gender interactions in Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: Gender Relations,so I’ll confine myself to these few remarks:
The principles of modesty, restraint and respectability have long been written out of our social norms and mores, and this was bound to impact Muslim attitudes too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions; if one of them is removed, the other follows.’5 Indeed, as Muslims themselves begin to relax these principles, or compromise them in the hope of being welcomed to the table of liberal sensibilities, can we perhaps see in where it has led others, where we too could be heading?
It’s not just the hijab or niqab we’re talking about. It runs far deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; it’s about how one carries themselves; of how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender. Ultimately, it’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to its Lord.
Allah ﷻ commands: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do.[24:30]. On citing this verse, Ibn al-Qayyim noted:
‘Allah put purification after lowering one’s gaze and guarding the private parts. This is why restraining the gaze from the forbidden necessitates three benefits of great worth and tremendous significance. Firstly, [experiencing] the sweetness and delight of faith that is far sweeter, pleasant or delightful than that which the gaze was left, or averted from, for Allah’s sake. Indeed, whoever leaves a thing for Allah’s sake, He shall replace it with what is better than it.6 The soul is deeply enamoured with gazing at beautiful forms. The eye is the scout for the heart, and it sends its scout out to see what’s there. If the eye informs it of something it finds visually attractive and beautiful, it is moved to desire it … Whoever allows their gaze to roam free will constantly be in regret. For the gaze gives rise to love, which begins with the heart having an attachment (‘alaqah) to what it is beholden too. As it strengthens, it becomes an ardent longing (sababah); the heart now hopelessly besotted with it. Growing more, it becomes an infatuation (gharam); it sticks to the heart as a creditor (gharim) sticks to his debtor (gharimah) from whom he doesn’t part. Growing stronger, still, it becomes passionate love (‘ishq); an excessive love. Then it becomes a burning love (shaghaf); a love which reaches to the very lining of the heart and enters it. Intensifying further, it becomes worshipful love (tatayyum) … the heart becoming a slave [worshipper] of that which it isn’t worthy of being enslaved to. And all of this is because of the harmful gaze.’7
Leave aside the debate on whether the greater onus is on women dressing modestly, or men lowering their gaze. There’s no doubt that in today’s ambiance it falls upon men to lower their gaze and to refrain from the lustful, illicit and harmful glance. Shaykh Jaleel Akhoon recently remarked that sins usually leave a black stain on the heart, that can be cleansed through the act of contrition and repentance. But if the heart is captive to the object of its love; enslaved to it by its ‘ishq, then this is worse than the ‘usual’ sin. For the heart isn’t just stained or darkened, he stressed; it is inverted. This has certain echoes of Ibn al-Qayyim when he said: ‘Many a passionate lover will admit they have no place at all in their heart for other than their passionate love. Instead, they let their passionate love completely conquer their heart, thereby becoming an avid worshipper of it … There is no comparison between the harm of this dire matter and the harm wrought by sexual misconduct (fahishah). For this sin is a major one for the one who commits it, but the evil of this ‘ishq is that of idolatry (shirk). A shaykh from the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) said: “That I be tested with sexual misconduct by this beautiful form is more preffered to me than to be tested with it through ‘ishq, by which my heart worships it and is diverted from Allah by it.”‘8
The cure, Shaykh Jaleel says, is that as soon as the heart is tempted by what it must not gaze at, one reins in the gaze and diverts it from the haram or harmful. No effort can be spared in doing so, lest the forbidden glance secretes its poison into the heart, causing it irreparable injury, anguish and torment.
We Ask Allah for safety, sensibility and success.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5096; Muslim, nos.3740-41.
2. Muslim, no.2742.
3. Al-Bazzar, no.2061; at-Tirmidhi, no.1173, who said it is hasan gharib.
5. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who declared: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’
6. Possibly paraphrasing the hadith: ‘Indeed, you will not leave anything for the sake of Allah, except that Allah will replace it with something better.’ Ahmad, no.22565, and its chain is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), 1:62; no.5
7. Ighathat al-Lahfan fi Masayid al-Shaytan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 75. The other two benefits he discusses are: Secondly, the heart being illumined and given to see with spiritual clarity and insight; thirdly, the heart is given strength, courage, firmness and honour.
8. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Saudi Arabia: Imam Dar al-Hijrah, 2014), 514-5.
In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.
It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!
A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.
Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:
1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.
2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]
4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.
5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6
6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7
7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8
8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).
9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.
10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.
There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!
In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12
His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:
Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.
As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.
Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.
3. Muslim, no.365.
4. Muslim, no.240.
5. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.
The Qur‘an teaches that whenever the love, longing, loyalty and submission which are due to Allah, are focused upon other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is shirk – idolatry; setting-up partners with Allah. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes, fears, love and loyalty around it; submitting to it independently of Allah, then this, for them, becomes a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth. Others make gods of celebrities. Still others make gods of their egos and desires. The Qur’an asks: Have you seen him who takes his desires for his god? [25:43] Of course we have! It is in this same vein that Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:
‘Whoever loves something and obeys it, loving and hating for its sake, then that is his god. Whoever loves or hates only for the sake of Allah, or forms allegiances and enmity only for Him, then Allah is his god in truth. But whoever’s loving or loathing revolves around his whims, forming enmity or allegiance on its basis, then these desires are his god that he worships.’1
Today’s Monoculture, for all its talk of tolerance, demands that we bow to its beliefs, values and worldview – even if it has to drag us there kicking and screaming. Wisdom enjoins that we engage with it; even partake in its political processes (for the Muslim collective benefit, or a national interest). But let us not forget the Monoculture exists, not for God, but in spite of Him; and even in brazen defiance of Him. That being the case, a believer participates in it as per the following Contention: ‘It is better to engage fully with the Monoculture from a position of dislike than to engage partly with it from a position of admiration.’2 Belief in Allah’s all-embracing knowledge, wisdom and care for creation, and loyalty to His lordship, require nothing less: Who is better in judgement than Allah for those who have certainty of belief? [5:50] In a world that insists we render our ultimate loyalty to liberal ideals, let’s recall that shirk isn’t only bowing to idols of wood or stone. Egos, desires, people and even philosophical ideals and political systems can be deified too!
The late Gai Eaton put his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he expressed three or four decades ago:
‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1
He then went on to note:
‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2
For a long while now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying modern assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims – and those parts of the globe still known as ‘the Muslim world’ – even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical concerning the philosophical and civilisational propositions modernity insists upon. These assumptions – that Man has now ‘come of age’ and is to be the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material Progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have prised the individual away from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that had been the setting for normative human life down throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of unbelief.
If commitment to religious faith and practice it to survive such a deluge, knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! But while less than half a century ago one could be a good Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of Imam al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who doesn’t have some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the Islamic faith is founded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in an impenetrable simplicity or naivety.
Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or a hell-bent society. They took as their queue the hadiths concerning times of great political discord, social upheaval, or religious and spiritual degeneration, in which: from the best of Muslims would be one ‘who secludes himself in a valley and worships his Lord,’3 or who takes his flock of sheep to a mountain top ‘fleeing with his religion from fitnah.’4
If it were feasible for those who see the monoculture for what it is to withdraw from society and go their own way in peace, this would probably be a good course of action (not forgetting the fact that the core of Islam’s call is decisively urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows more and more invasive and totalising: suffocating any meaningful dissent, assimilating any consequential diversity, and bulldozing any significant divergence. Driven into a tight corner, religion has no option but to turn and fight. Hence the need to raise the dust of polemics against theensnaring myths of modernity.
Thus with intellectual and spiritual inquiry as our starting point, and God as our goal, here are some of the most significant existential challenges (in terms of ideas and isms) to now confront Muslims and their faith; as well as an outline of some basic responses to them. And by far, the most destructive of these issues to faith and to salvation of the soul is atheism:
1. Atheism: Denying the existence of God is called atheism (sometimes it is defined as: lack of belief/conviction that God exists). A growing number of ex-Muslims – not just here in the West, but also in Muslim majority countries – now self-identify as atheists. Of course, atheism doesn’t come in one strain. There is, to lift a phrase from Professor Alister McGrath, ‘apathetic atheism’ or ‘atheism of indifference’, and then there is what he calls ‘committed atheism’.5 The former tends to entail no enmity towards God, nor even actively believe that God does not exist: hence the apathy or indifference. As for the latter, it equips itself with what it sees as certain explicit arguments and concerns against theism or belief in God. ‘Sociological research suggests that there are probably fewer committed atheists than apathetic ones.’6 And contrary to the assertion of such atheists today, belief in God is neither intellectual suicide; and nor has science pushed God out of the equation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The Qur’an asks: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? [52:35] The crux of the matter here is that while Muslims insist that the divine ‘fingerprints’ of God can be detected throughout the universe – how it originated, how it is ordered, how it operates, and how extraordinary the odds are of complex life or human consciousness emerging in it – atheists desperately field their counter-arguments. For despite modern science revealing the universe had a beginning and came into existence at an event we call the Big-Bang; or despite the fundamental physical constants of the universe being so finely tuned down to the minutest nth of a degree, that the chances of it being mere ‘coincidence’ isn’t just staggeringly improbable, had the value of any of these constants been different by a small, infinitesimal degree, there would have been no universe and no life – despite science telling us this and more, atheists want us to believe that such things happened purely by chance; a colossal cosmic fluke.7 In other words, the entire cosmos just happened to create itself; without any purpose, meaning or intentionality whatsoever. ‘Only within the scaffolding of these truths,’ wrote Bertrand Russell on the core conviction of atheism, ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.’8
To be fair, not all atheists are satisfied with the ‘lucky-coincidence’ response. The fine-tuning of the universe seems far too precise to have happened merely by chance. So in order to explain the existence of a universe which fits the given physical constants and mathematical improbabilities without acknowledging the existence of a creator, many are now advocating the idea of a ‘multiverse’. Our universe is highly improbable only if it’s the only one there is. But if our universe is just one among an infinite number of universes, at least one would fit the required parameters, and it happens to be ours. Or as John Polkinghorne put it, ‘a kind of winning ticket in a gigantic multiversial lottery.’9 If this highly speculative notion turns out to be true, this just pushes back the question of who created our universe to who created the multiverse? Or one is confronted with even more incredulity than our improbable universe: that of an infinite number of self-creating universes. Either way, atheists do themselves no favour by replacing what they hold to be a single unprovable God for an infinity of unprovable universes! Moreover, can we really say that such replies have truly dispensed with the claim that our universe (or indeed, the multiverse) is far more consistent with theism than with atheism? Little wonder we find the Qur‘an saying: ‘Is there any doubt about God?’ [14:10]
That being said, the popularity of atheism, at least here in the West, is undoubtedly on the rise. As for how much of it is an intellectual phenomenon and how much a cultural one is debatable. Although it’s been said that ‘the convictions of the multitude are not so much true convictions as mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of opinion’.10 While some arrive at atheism via certain rational considerations, others are led to it emotionally, with little or no rational inquiry or intellectual journey. Some are atheist just because of family or upbringing and, being preoccupied with the tiny patch of grass under their nose, haven’t given religion or the ultimate existential question any time or thought. For them, atheism is little more than an emotional ‘habit’.
Some stumble into atheism due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural influences. They think that since science has explained the big questions (the Big-Bang explains how the universe got here; evolution explains how we got here) that there is, therefore, no need for God. But a little critical thinking would reveal that just because science explains the workings of how the cosmos came into existence, does not necessitate rejecting God as the creator of the mechanism; any more than knowing about the inner workings of an iPhone should not lead to disbelieving that Steve Jobs was the author of such culturally altering tech. Philosophers call this a category mistake; confusing between mechanism and agent: since we know a mechanism that explains a specific phenomenon, it proves there is no agent that designed the mechanism. Many an atheist, regrettably, even high profile ones, fall into this fallacy. But when, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is not agent God who designed it.’ It was quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.11
Some, repelled by bad experiences with ‘religious’ people, find their way into the arms of an often sympathetic atheism. Here they may find other embittered souls with their own horror stories to tell about religion or its practitioners. Yet people oftentimes have a very curious idea of religion. They think that merely because a person says: ‘I believe in God’ that he or she should at once become morally upright; saintly, even. If this does not happen, and very often it doesn’t, then either the believer must be a hypocrite of sorts, or else it says something dark about the religion itself. Many think that adhering to religion is the end of the path, whereas in fact it is only the beginning of a long and sometimes rough and rocky road. But whether religious, atheist, humanist or agnostic, inconsistencies abound in human souls, even if they ascribe to virtuous ideals. Yet this is not to say righteous religious behaviour should only be honoured in the breach and not in the practice. Islam, despite it not always being evident from the way some of us Muslims behave, calls to the highest moral and ethical ideals. If a believer’s ethics and conduct fail to demonstrate the beauty and attraction of husn khuluq; ‘refined’ or ‘good’ character, let it not be a cause for the crime of tanfir – of repelling people from religion: It was by the mercy of God that you were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around you. [3:159] That said, one suspects that for some people, casting of the constraints of religion is a matter of any pretext or excuse. Which brings me to one final point:
There’s another significant reason why some people choose atheism, and it’s one that is seldom admitted to. Some – and it wouldn’t be surprising if this some turned out to be a great many – are led to atheism, not by the careful hand of reason, but by the desire to follow their baser desires, unencumbered by moral codes. Here’s Aldoux Huxley, the famous English novelist, philosopher and atheist, on the deeper motive that fuels some people’s atheism and their desperate need for there to be no existential meaning to life: ‘For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning … of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.’12 Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have likewise admitted that their atheism is more emotional and self-serving than it is rational and pure following of the evidences. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel is candid when he said: ‘It isn’t just I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’13
Such atheists understand that if God exists, there are certain ramifications, particularly moral ones. They are aware that it wouldn’t be a matter of sending off a few Dawkins’ titles to the charity shop, or apologise on social media for the unintended misguidance they may have uttered. They realise that such belief necessitates a life of commitment, service and loving submission to God, by growing in knowledge of God and seeking to mould one’s life around the spiritual teachings and moral laws which He revealed – ‘in short, the waving of the white flag and the rebel’s complete surrender’.14 Yet the rebel refuses to mould his ways around the awareness of the Divine Reality that surrounds him and everything else, and is unwilling to give up his ‘autonomy’ or his pride. Instead he claims the world is God-free, meaning-free and morality-free, so he can do more or less what he desires. This is what Dostoevsky could have been alluding to when he put these words into the mouth of one of The Brothers Karamazov: ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now’.15 If such self-deceit wants to pass itself off for enlightened, rational thought, then so be it. But it will ultimately prove costly.
Some of the classical works on Muslim theology relate the following account: It is said that a group of atheists came to debate the existence of God with Abu Hanifah – one of the greatest and most famous jurist-theologians of Muslim antiquity. He said to them: ‘Tell me, before we start to discuss the matter, what you say of a boat in the Euphrates that makes its own way to shore, docks by itself, loads itself with food and other goods, makes its own way back to port, anchors and then unloads its cargo, all without anyone steering it or directing it?’ They all cried out that this is impossible; never could such a thing happen. Thereupon Abu Hanifah said to them: ‘If this is impossible with regards to a boat, then what about this whole world and all that it contains?’16
This simple, undemanding type of reasoning has satisfied many a pre-modern skeptic, although one suspects this would not be the case today. To see this argument as over simplistic is to miss the point. Atheism, to be sure, isn’t anything new; and neither are the arguments of today’s New Atheists: even if their anger and aggression are. For what the issue boils down to is this: That against incomprehensible odds this vast universe came into existence, containing sentient life that has consciousness and to whom the universe is comprehensible. And that screams out for an explanation!
Atheism serves up blind chance or a multiverse as a more reasonable explanation than an omniscient, omnipotent God who created creation with intent and wise purpose. In fact, what seems like a desperate attempt to avoid theism at all costs, Stephen Hawking insists: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’17 But physical laws in and of themselves cannot createanything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which are inferred from real material events. So we are now offered belief in an eternal law (gravity), rather than an eternal law-giver (God). But that, it has to be said, is the absurdity of atheism.
Part Two of the blog, God-willing, tackles the impact of secularism and liberalism upon Muslims and their iman, and whether or not they aid in witnessing the glory of God or diminish it? The other instalments address feminism and Muslim feminists; whether or not Islam is compatible with science and reason?; evolution and the functional view of human beings; and today’s spiritual laziness and modernity’s loss of meaning.
This short video is about the demand being placed on Muslims to make their religious teachings align with the liberal orthodoxies of the age, and what our response to such pressures ought to be. Should we, as some are now doing, be watering down our faith teachings to make our religion more palatable to a wider secular audience? Should we compromise a few aspects of our religion in order to better our liberal credentials, thus making faith more palatable to the monoculture? These are the issues addressed in this Five Minute Meditation: https://youtu.be/l0xI6Agvjuk