The Humble "I"

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Archive for the category “marvels of man & the cosmos”

Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [2/2]

6455578409_9bd1e50d22_zIn the first part of the blog (here), I discussed a ‘proof’ for the existence of God vis-a-via the kalam cosmological argument. We saw how, as a rational argument, it is well reasoned, cogent and logical; hence giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational. But since the proof is highly abstract and theoretical, I suggested that a more accessible proof for God’s existence comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s insistance to reflect on the signs of God. In the second and final part of the blog, I shall endeavour to explain and explore the above argument. Finally, as I mentioned in the first part of the blog, I’ll end this discussion by briefly sketching the ontological and moral proofs for the existence of God.

In the Qur’an, in contrast to the kalam cosmological argument, the existence of God is firmly rooted in the creation of visible entities; in everyday experience. A far more potent proof, therefore, comes from the teleological argument (teleos, from the Greek word for “purpose” or “end”). It is also known as the Argument from Design.

This is the argument which stresses that the complex and purposeful design we see in the natural world round us, as well as in the cosmos at large, suggests the universe has an intelligent designer. The 18th-century essayist and poet, Joseph Addison, captures the spirit of the argument in these verses:

The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great original proclaim …
In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine:
“The hand that made us is Divine!”

The Qur’an says that the cosmos isn’t its own explanation. Rather it’s a sign pointing to something greater. We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, is how the Qur’an puts it [41:53]

‘For Islam,’ wrote Gai Eaton, ‘the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the “signs” of the Creator are woven. It is significant that the word meaning “signs” or “symbols,” ayah, is the same word that’s used for the “verses” of the Qur’an. Earth and sky, mountains and stars, oceans and forests and the creatures they contain are, as it were, “verses” of a sacred book.’1 For a believer, therefore, creation is holistic. For He who revealed the Qur’an is also He who created the observable phenomena of nature. Both are communications from God to man; both are signs pointing to Him. In fact, Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘In the Qur’an, God invites His servants to know Him via two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other by meditating on the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’2

Now these signs not only serve as evidence for the existence of God as such, but they act as evidence for various attributes of His too – attributes that become a pious focus for the contemplative life of a believer. These remarkable signs (often referred to by Muslims scholars and pietists as aja’ib, “marvels”, or bada’i‘, “wonders”) point to God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, majesty and unity; and to His beneficence, kindness and care for humankind. The Qur’an says: In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean for the benefit of humankind; in the water with which He revives the earth after its death; in the animals of all kinds He has scattered therein; in the ordering of the winds and clouds that are driven between heaven and earth, are signs for those who have intelligence. [2:164]

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires gratitude, reverence, love and awe of God. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of God. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; and if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things truly be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

Consider also these verses from the Qur’an: It is He who spread out the earth and placed upon it firm mountains and rivers, and fruit of every kind in pairs. He draws the night [as a veil] over the day. In these are signs for those who reflect. And on earth are neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands, and palms in pairs and palms single; watered by one water; some of them We make better than others to eat. In that are signs for those who understand. [13:3-4]

To reflect and meditate upon the astounding nature of the creation is to experience awe and enchantment of how such beauty, harmony and complexity originated, and how it is sustained. Pondering over these “signs” should lead the reflecting intellect to acknowledge and accept that there is an Absolute underlying all relative phenomena, an Omnipotence underlying all relative power, and a Wisdom underlying the laws of nature. This is pointed out in the verses by utilising the symbolism of water: A single kind of water nourishes neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands and gives them life. That same water further produces palm-trees; some single, others paired, and some better tasting than others. Those who understand are those who can grasp the Unity that underpins creational diversity. A Muslim poet of old versified:

O wonder! How can the Deity be disobeyed;
Or by the denier be denied.
While in everything there is a sign
By which His Oneness stands testified.

The tafsir genre relates this unadorned story. A bedouin was once asked how he knew that God exists. He answered: ‘Glory be to God! Camel’s dung proves the existence of a camel and footprints prove that someone has walked by. So a sky with its towering constellations, and an earth with all its mountain passes, and a deep sea covered by waves upon waves – doesn’t all this testify that [God] the Subtle, the Aware exists?’3

In a similar vein, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote about a watermill by a river, faultlessly made, with perfect parts: no flaw can be observed in its construction. It efficiently irrigates a large garden containing various kinds of plants and fruits. The garden is well tended, pruned, weeded, and maintained in every way so that nothing is amiss or overlooked; and nor is any fruit left to rot. Then its produce is harvested and the money gained is distributed to various people according to their needs, each getting what is right for them. All of this happens each time, over and over again, without fail. Would you say that all of this happens by chance, asks Ibn al-Qayyim, without someone behind it who has intentionality (iradah), a will to choose to do or not to do (ikhtiyar), and the ability to plan and manage (tadbir)? Would you believe that the wheel or the garden got there by mere chance, or that all that goes on there does so without an actor who has intentionality, will or management? What would your intellect say to that? What would that indicate to you?4

The bedouin logic, or Ibn al-Qayyim’s watermill, has a modern twin in Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy. Paley argued that, were we to find a watch lying on a heath, we would naturally assume it had a maker due to the fact that it is a complex mechanism which seems designed for a specific purpose. In a similar manner, he goes on to argue, the complexity, order and purpose of the universe implies an intelligent designer.

As appealing as it seems, critics of Paley’s argument point out a logical flaw in it. The fact that two objects share a common characteristic (in this case, complexity), doesn’t always imply they will share all characteristics. Paley’s argument can be stated, thus: (i) A watch is complex. (ii) A watch has an intelligent designer. (iii) Life is complex. (iv) Therefore life must also have an intelligent designer.

Consider a similar line of reason: (i) Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons. (ii) Electric current comes from the power company. (iii) Lightning consists of a flow of electrons. (iv) Therefore, lightning comes from the power company. This last statement is plainly not true. So Paleyan logic holds true in some cases, but not in all cases.

Inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole is referred to as a “fallacy of composition”. In certain cases, this mode of inference looks better than in others. Thus, if every gem in a necklace is valuable, the necklace will be valuable too. But if every player on a football team is outstanding, it is likely, but not guaranteed, that the team will be outstanding too. Yet if every track on a CD is less than five minutes long, it doesn’t follow that the whole CD is less than five minutes long.

Attempts to weaken the argument are predicated on thinking that Paley is reasoning by way of analogy. Some, however, think that the argument is better understood as an inference to the best explanation. What Paley is saying is that whenever you see these kinds of deliberate and purposeful contrivances, then what is the best explanation? The best explanation is surely design.

Whatever the case, Paley’s argument is still highly persuasive. Revealed theology (that is, theology based upon religious scripture) informs that the universe has a Creator-God. While natural theology (theology based on reason and ordinary experience) says it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the complex design of our observable universe has an intelligent designer behind it. Paley’s analogy (and, by extension, the argument from design), despite its criticism, is not just rationally appealing; it accords with our everyday experience too.

The ontological argument (ontos, Greek for “reality”) is a highly curious one. It states, in effect, that if one understands what the word “God” means, it is perfectly logical to believe He exists. This philosophical argument was set out by Anslem, the eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, and is based upon an understanding that God is “that than which no greater can exist.” This type of argument reasons that if God is that than which no greater can be conceived to exist, then God cannot exist only as a concept. If God exists just as a concept, then there’s something greater – namely, God who exists as a concept in the mind as well as in reality. But since God is that than which no greater can exist, this must logically include existence. Thus God exists. (To this, Muslims would simply exclaim: Allahu akbar – “God is greater!”)

The moral argument starts from the moral order – that some things are right, and some things are wrong – recognized by people throughout the world, to the existence of God as the source of this morality. Even the remotest tribes that have been cut-off from civilization, the argument posits, observe a moral code similar to everyone else’s. No doubt, differences in moral perspectives do exist. Yet virtues like bravery, truth and loyalty; and vices such as greed and cowardice are universal. So where does this “law of right behaviour” originate?

Some sociobiologists have tried to argue, though not very succesfully, that our moral impulses like altruism (the selfless giving to others even if nothing is received in return) are evolutionary bi-products left over from Darwinian natural selection. This line of reasoning, however, has been sufficiently debunked.5

Post-modern philosophy insists moral truths are relative: there are no absolute rights or wrongs. If that’s the case, how can post-modernism itself be absolutely right in its claim? Moreover, as C.S Lewis wrote, if one considers the various human cultures and civilizations from ancient times till now, one will encounter ‘the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, the weak, of almsgiving, impartiality and honesty.’6

Elsewhere he says: ‘If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command getting us to behave in a certain type of way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions.’7

Thus, it is reasonable to suggest it is God who is the author of this Moral Law and it is He who allows its bright light to shine into the recesses of our beings and nature. We will show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves. [41:53] The Qur’an is, in point of fact, categorical about the Moral Law eminating from God. It says: By the soul and He who fashioned it, then inspired it to discern its vices and piety. Successful is he who purifies it, and ruined is he who corrupts it. [91:7-10]

That the moral law is firmly embedded in human nature melds into another Quranic concept, that of fitrah – man’s “innate nature” or “natural disposition.” One verse of the Qur’an states: So set your purpose for the upright religion, the innate nature in which God created mankind. [30:30] There occurs in one hadith: ‘All children are born upon the natural disposition’ – kullu mawludin yuladu ‘ala’l-fitrah.8 A number of scholars, including al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, argue that our knowledge of God’s existence is implanted in our fitrah and it is a knowledge which makes the theologians’ proofs obsolete. Man knows God intstinctively by virtue of his fitrah. Resorting to rational proofs or reflection, they say, is necessary only when the fitrah has been corrupted by unhealthy environments, or if someone is plagued by doubts.9

Having rehearsed at some length the main rational or discursive arguments for the existence of God, let me summarise them:

The kalam-cosmological argument, simply put, says that the cause and effect chain of changing physical existence cannot go back indefinitely in time, and thus must have a beginning found only through divine creation.

The teleological argument, at its simplest, asserts that the nature of the world is such that it must have been created by an intelligent designer.

The ontological argument, stripped to its bare bones, argues from the concept of God to the existence of God.

As for the moral argument, it appeals to the existence of moral laws as proof of God’s existence.

Although these discursive arguments do yield coherent reasons for belief in God (as well as lay to rest the lingering fallacy that belief in God is irrational), they are open to some criticisms. Perhaps no single one clinches the deal. Nevertheless, each argument reinforces the other; that is, they are accumulative in strength. Such proofs, though, tend not to convince hardened skeptics, nor those who are determined not to believe. However, these rational proofs, in concert with the miraculous nature of the Qur’an and the pious and selfless life of the Prophet ﷺ, are powerful reasons to believe and to submit.

1. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 101.

2. Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

3. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1986), 1:61-62 – citing al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, 2:91.

4. See: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 2:69-70.

5. See: Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 24-8.

6. ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’, in C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflection, 77 – cited in Collins, The Language of God, 24.

7. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 24.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.1385; Muslim, no.2657.

9. See: A. Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’, in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 198; Ozervali, ‘The Qur’anic Rational Theology of Ibn Taymiyya and his Criticism of the Mutakallimun’, in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90-91; Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf, Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained (California: White Thread Press, 2007), 64-66. In Arabic, cf. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 16:328; al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:854; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1988), 13:361-63; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 78-79

Ma‘rifah: Getting to Know God

allah-calligraphy-1When we compare our lifespans, wherein our lives unfold, to the age of the earth or to the visible universe of nearly fourteen billion years, it seems less significant than a drop of water in an endless ocean. To today’s materialists, life holds little significance beyond that of selfish genes and chance mutations (or of exploitation and unfettered consumption). To believers in Allah and His Oneness (tawhid), however, life is seen as a rich tapestry of signs and an arena of tests that grant us the opportunity of knowing Allah and of worshiping Him. I only created jinn and men, stresses Allah in the Qur’an, that they may worship Me. [51:56]

The famous Quranic exegesis (mufassir), Mujahid, explained Allah’s words: “that they may worship Me (illa li ya‘budun)” to mean: “that they may know Me (illa li ya‘rifuni).”1 The rationale here being pretty straightforward, which is that we can’t worship Allah without first knowing something about Him.

In his essay about divine love, Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns – “Inhaling the Breeze of Divine Intimacy” – Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote: ‘Allah created creation in order that they may worship Him, with love, fear and hope in Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. However, Allah, transcendent is He, can only be worshiped after knowing Him. This is why He created the heavens, the earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness and majesty. Allah informs: Allah it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [65:12]’2

So here we are told that the whole of creation was created li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah, and know that His Command courses throughout creation and that His omnipotence and omniscience envelop all things. This, then, forms the deep wisdom behind why creation was created: to know Allah; know He is One, utterly unique, the sole Lord, Creator and Controller of creation, and that none deserves to be worshiped except Him.

As for the hadith frequently cited in sufi literature: “I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation and made Myself known; they then knew Me,” hadith masters declare this report to be a chainless forgery.

In his encyclopaedia of hadith forgeries and fabrications, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari said about it: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah stated: “These aren’t the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and nor does it have any chain; be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani said the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’3

That its meaning is sound is confirmed by the Qur’an and by a whole host of classical scholars. So here is a case where we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

When speaking about Islam’s religious ultimate: Allah, the language of Islam and of its learned ones often make reference to the term, ma‘rifatu’Llah – having ma‘rifah of God. Ma‘rifah (which is derived from the word ‘arafa: “to know”, “to be acquainted”) may be translated as: knowledge of God. It is of varying degrees and tends to refer to knowledge which has been arrived at through reflection and contemplation, and then internalised and experienced by the heart and the senses. In other words, ma‘rifah is experiential knowledge (sometimes translated as “gnosis”). The deeper the reflection, the profounder the ma‘rifah.

Whilst elaborating on the following hadith: “Know Allah in times of prosperity and He will know you in times of adversity,”4 Ibn Rajab said:

A person’s ma‘rifah of his Lord is of two degrees: Firstly, a general ma‘rifah that entails acknowledging, affirming and believing in Him. This degree of ma‘rifah is common to every Muslim. Secondly, a more specific type of ma‘rifah which causes hearts to incline completely to Allah, be devoted to Him, seek intimacy in Him, be at peace whenever remembering Him, feel shy before Him and be in awe of Him. This level of ma‘rifah is the type around which the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) revolve. One of them said: “The paupers of this world have departed from it without having tasted the sweetest thing in it.” Someone inquired: What is the sweetest thing in it? He said: “Ma‘rifah of Allah; mighty and majestic is He.” Ahmad b. ‘Asim al-Antaqi said: “I wish not to die until I attain to ma’rifah of my Lord. I don’t mean a ma‘rifah in terms of merely believing in Him. But a ma‘rifah such that, when I know Him, I feel shy before Him.”’5

Now these levels of ma‘rifah may be likened to that of a man and his neighbour who’s just recently moved in next door.6 Initially the man becomes acquainted with his new neighbour in a general sense. He may learn of his name; his vocation; whether he is married or not. He will also learn of his general appearance and be able to recognise him when meeting him on the street. He may even, by asking around, be able to glean other facts about his new neighbour. Yet whatever facts he does learn about him will be at an indirect, impersonal level, unlikely to stir the heart into having any deep or abiding sense of respect and admiration for him. In fact, beyond acknowledging the neighbour’s existence or presence in the locality, his outlook towards him will likely be one of polite indifference. This is akin to the first degree of ma‘rifah spoken of by Ibn Rajab.

Let us now imagine the man decides to know his neighbour directly and introduce himself to him; frequently visit him; socialise with him; and, over time, form a sincere and faithful friendship with him. He is now able to see and experience, at first hand, his neighbour’s fine character, kindness, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, compassion and other virtues which can only be known through direct contact. Such an intimate awareness of his neighbour will eventually evoke in the man a profound respect and admiration for him, and a deep, abiding love for him. It is probable; guaranteed, even, that his neighbour will now begin to disclose to him many of his most private and cherished thoughts, and share with him many of his most intimate feelings, which could never have been known even with a lifetime’s worth of indirect observation or investigation. Rather, this knowledge is only granted to him out of the neighbour’s own desire to be more intimately known, and from the man abiding by the rules of courteous conduct (adab) in seeking to know and draw closer to his neighbour. This reflects the higher degree of ma‘rifah.

As for how ma‘rifah of Allah can be inspired and instilled in our hearts, Ibn al-Qayyim (Ibn Rajab’s most cherished teacher) tells us: ‘In the Qur’an, Allah invites His servants to attain ma‘rifah in two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other, by meditating upon the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’7

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires reverence and love of Allah in human hearts. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of Allah. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

As for the Qur’an, in demonstrating Allah’s tawhid, it depicts a vivid portrayal of Allah. This is so we may attain a more immediate awareness of Him, through pondering over His acts and attributes of perfection, by which He makes Himself known. When the Qur’an depicts such attributes – like when it says that Allah is wise, just, majestic, omnipotent, generous, compassionate, loving and forgiving – it insists Allah possesses such qualities in utter perfection. This ‘divine disclosure’ is, again, aimed at inspiring hearts to incline to Allah in reverence, awe and loving submission.

Therefore, amidst the dramas of the world, and amidst its songs of joy and sorrow, the Qur’an asks each of us to know their Maker and to live out our lives in conscious awareness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such awareness, and in accordance with Islam’s Sacred Law or shari‘ah, are led by it to an even deeper awareness. So it is that Allah, in His overwhelming generosity and perfect grace, elevates those who are imperfect, weak and ignorant, yet strive to subdue their lower souls, open their hearts to His light and seek to know and draw closer to Him.

We ask you, O Allah, to deepen our ma‘rifah of You, fill our hearts
with love and awe of You, grant us sincerity in our
worship of You, and not to be deprived
of Your shade; on the Day there
shall be no shade
but Yours.
Amin.

1. Cited in al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 4:235.

2. Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns, 60.

3. Al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353. Almost identicle words have been reproduced in al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al–‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.836.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, 1:307; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11560.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:473.

6. The simile is culled from Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1998), 80-81. My thanks goes to Shaykh al-Afifi, of Oxford, for pointing this valuable book out to me.

7. Al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

Was the Universe Expecting Us?

tarantula-nebula_01_2560x1600-1Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, wrote: ‘The more I exam the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming,’1

Today scientists don’t hesitate to acknowledge this wondrous fact of how tailor-made to life our universe is. Or, as Anthony Flew declared in There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, that ‘the laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe towards the emergence and sustenance of life.’2

And what precisely is the cause of this enchantment? Or on what grounds do so many cosmologists believe that the universe is compelled, in some sense, for conscious life to emerge in it? Well, it all has to do with our universe’s remarkable fine-tuning of its most basic, fundamental forces. Let me elaborate:

I

Cosmologists tell us, for instance, that had the force of gravity been a fraction weaker than it is: by 1 part in 1040 (that is, one followed by forty zeros), matter couldn’t have clumped together to form galaxies or stars. The universe would have been a lifeless sea of drifting gas of interminable darkness.

Had gravity been ever so slightly stronger, the universe would be radically different than it is now. Matter would clump together more aggresively. Stars could still exist, but they would be far smaller and burn out much more quicker than the time needed for complex planetary life to evolve. If it did manage to evolve, even insects would need thicker legs to support themselves because of the increased gravitational tug; indeed gravity would crush anything as large as ourselves. And that is assuming that planets could be stable. For in a strong-gravity universe, stars will be packed far closer together, making stellar collisions frequent. Planetry existence would thus be very unlikely, or extremely unstable.

So precisely-tuned is the force of gravity in relation to the other forces which operate throughout the universe that, had the initial explosion of the Big-Bang differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060, then the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. This incredibly slim margin is likened to firing a bullet at a fifty pence coin at the other side of the universe, billions of light-years away, and actually hitting the target!

II

A similar story holds true for the force binding protons and neutrons together in an atom: the strong nuclear force. Had it been a tad weaker, only hydrogen atoms could have formed; nothing else. If the strong nuclear force had been slightly stronger, the nuclear furnace which rages within the centre of stars would not be able to produce heavy elements like carbon, which is critical for all biological life. Again, the nuclear force appears to be tuned just sufficiently for carbon atoms to form.

Another example of such cosmic coincidences is the electromagnetic force: the force that causes the interaction between electrically-charged particles. If it was a tiny bit stronger, electrons would be bound to atoms so tightly that no chemical interactions could take place between atoms, which essentially means no life! On the other hand, if it were a fraction weaker than it is, electrons could not be bound to the nucleus of atoms, and thus no molecules could even form to give rise to life.

III

That our universe seems uniquely tuned to give rise to life; more specifically, human life, is known as the Anthropic Principle. And it remains a source of intense wonder, debate and speculation among scientists, philosophers and theologians since it was fullly appreciated a few decades ago.

All in all there are fifteen cosmological constants which, because they have the values and parameters they have, allow the emergence of a universe capable of supporting complex life.

Some have imaginatively likened the anthropic principle to a series of radio dials, with each instance of fine-tuning representing one dial. Unless all the dials are tuned to exactly the right settings, life would be utterly imposible. In his Just Six Numbers, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, states that such finely-tuned cosmological constants, ‘constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.’3 ‘The chance,’ says Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, ‘that all these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters we observe.’4

IV

McGrath tells us that the first few decades of the twentieth century were dominated by a scientific belief that the universe had always existed, and so for most scientists of the time, there was no good reason to deliberate upon what brought it into existence. Religious language about creation was seen as backwardness: mythological nonsense incompatible with cutting-edge scientific knowledge. By the 1960s, though, it became increasingly apparent to the scientific community that the universe did have an origin; a starting point – the Big Bang. Although the idea was initially met with fierce dismissal by some atheist scientists of the day, such prejudice was overwhelmed by the evidence in its favour.5

Both the Big-Bang and the growing realisation of how the universe is finely-tuned for life have seriously altered the tone of the debate in terms of God, science and reason. Nonetheless, as suggestive as fine-tuning may be, its explanation continues to stoke intense debate in scientific, theological and philosophical circles.

V

Three explanations are offered for the remarkable fine-tuning of our cosmos. The first is a sort of shrug of the shoulder response. That is, things are what they are, or we would not be here to discuss them. We are just very lucky. To this “it’s just the way things are” attitude, Rees writes the following: ‘Many scientists take this line, but it certainly leaves me unsatisfied. I’m impressed by a metaphor given by the Canadian philosopher John Leslie. Suppose you are facing a firing squad. Fifty marksmen take aim, but they all miss. If they hadn’t missed, you wouldn’t have survived to ponder the matter. But you wouldn’t just leave it at that – you’d still be baffled, and would seek some further reason for your good fortune.’6

The second continues to attract a growing number of advocates: There are multiple universes parallel to ours, each governed by different laws and defined by different values. Our universe is simply a result of trial and error in that it is one wherein all the anthropic constants act in concert to allow life. A setback with the “multiverse” hypothesis, its incredulity aside and its seemingly opportunistic reasoning, is that it only postpones the crucial question. Instead of asking how our universe came about, we now must ask how these multiple universes emerged. Another drawback with it has to do with Ockham’s Razor. This is the rule that insists, ‘All other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones.’ Invoking an infinite number of universes lacking empirical testability or observability, because they are in a different spacetime framework, is indeed extremely complex.

The last invokes divine providence. This is the belief that a wise, omnipotent Maker made the universe, endowing it with purpose, meaning and remarkable beauty for the specific intention of producing man. Stephen Hawking remarked in A Brief History of Time – in what seems like a moment of epiphany: ‘It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.’7

Indeed!

The Qur’an insists: And We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain. That is the opinion of those who disbelieve; so woe to the disbelievers because of the Fire! [38:27]

1. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 250 – in Barrow & Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Calarendon, 1988), 318.

2. Antony Flew, There is a God (USA: HarperCollins, 2008), 114.

3. Just Six Numbers (Great Britain: Phoenix Books, 1999), 4.

4. The Language of God (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 74. Cf. the account of the anthropic principle by physicist and Christian theologian John Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80-92.

5. Why God Won’t Go Away (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 84-5.

6. Just Six Numbers, 164-66.

7. A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Press, 1998), 144. I am not suggesting by this statement that Hawkins is a theist. But simply showing that the universe having a wise, omnipotent Maker is more than within the scope of reason and sound logic.

The Gift of the One to Man

andromedawanIn this enchanting piece of writing, taken from his slim anthology of miscellaneous spiritual benefits, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah discusses the preeminence of Adam, peace be upon him, over the rest of creation.

At the centre of this Adamic distinction are the twin gifts of: Then God fashioned him, and breathed into him of His spirit. [32:9] And secondly: We taught Adam the names of all things. [2:32] So it is with these two gifts – one of being infused with a spirit or ruh, the other of being taught knowledge unattainable by even Angels – that Adam’s merit and preeminence over even that of the Angels came to be. In what follows, Ibn al-Qayyim unveils to us ten reasons or wisdoms behind Heaven’s plan for deferring the creation of this marvel and enigma called Man:

‘The first thing created was the Pen, so as to write down all that would be before it actually came to be. Adam was the last of creation to be fashioned, for which certain wisdoms abound:1

Firstly, preparing the home before [the arrival of] the dweller.

Secondly, that he is the purpose for which all else was created: be it the heavens, earth, sun, moon, land or sea.

Thirdly, the Most Proficient Maker completed His handiwork with His most splendid and most intended creation, just as He began it with His most elementary work.

Fourthly, that souls always anticipate endings and finales, which is why Moses initially says to the magicians: “Cast whatever you wish to cast.” [10:80] Once people saw what the magicians had to offer, they were in eager anticipation of what was to come next.

Fifthly, that God deferred the best heavenly scripture, prophet and community for the end age; made the Afterlife better than the present life; and made the final stage more perfect than the initial stage. What a difference there is between the Angel [Gabriel] saying to the Prophet: “Read!” and him replying: “I cannot read!”,2 and between God’s saying: This day have I perfected your religion for you. [5:3]

Sixthly, that God gathered together in Adam all that He had scattered and diffused in the various other types of creation in the cosmos. Hence man is a microcosm, but he contains the macrocosm!

Seventhly, that Adam was the quintessence and climax of creation. Thus it was fitting that his creation should come after that of other created entities.

Eighthly, because of his preeminence over the rest of creation, God prepared for Adam all his needs, benefits, instruments of living and means of subsistence. In fact, he had barely raised his head, save to find all of this ready and waiting [for him].

Ninethly, that God wanted to manifest Adam’s nobility and excellence over the rest of creation, so He preceded it with the creation of others. The Angels assumed: “Even if our Lord does create that which He wishes, no creature will be as honourable to Him than us.”3 Yet when He did create Adam and told them to prostrate themselves before him, his merit and excellence over them – due to his knowledge and gnosis – became clear. When he lapsed into “sin”, the Angels thought his merit would be annulled: they never anticipated Adam’s latent potential for servitude and repentance. So when he did repent to his Lord in utter submission, the Angels then realised God’s secret in creating Adam that was hitherto known only to Himself.

Tenthly, that since God began creation with the Pen, it was only fitting He conclude it with Man. For the Pen is an instrument of knowledge; but Man is the actual knower. This is how God manifested Adam’s virtue over the Angels, by gifting him knowledge not privileged to others.’4

1. That is, last in terms of genus or species; not in terms of actual acts of creation.

2. Part of Islam’s founding story, as per al-Bukhari, no.3; Muslim, no.160.

3. As per Abu’l-Shaykh, al-‘Azamah, 5:1561.

4. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 89-90.

Look! And Ye Shall See

quantum_corral_niseOne may often hear Muslims say how it is understandable for someone to not believe in Islam, but not how one can disbelieve in God. For we have, the Qur’an states, all the evidence for God’s existence we need in our immediate experience, and that it is only a deliberate refusal to look that’s responsible for atheism of any shade or colour: We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, proclaims God in the Holy Qur’an [41:53].

Science prides itself at “looking”. For science is the attempt to understand our world through observation and reason. In other words, the scientific method works through the rational examination of evidences (which involves: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis or initial explanation from that data; performing experiments to test the hypothesis; working out a theory to account for the experimental results; then making predictions based on that theory; and finally testing out the theory by devising further experiments).

Science (Galileo) looked at Jupiter through a telescope and noticed moons orbiting it, thus revolutionising our understanding of the solar system.

Not long after, science (Newton) looked at how objects fell to the ground, giving us the theory of gravity.

Science (Faraday) looked at a magnetic field around a conductor carrying an electric current, offering electromagnetic induction.

Then science (Einstein) looked at the nature of light, gravity, space and time and gave us the time-bending theory of relativity.

At about the same time, science (Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Planck, Pauli, Dirac) looked at the wave-particle duality of light and shimmering truth of the sub-atomic world, bestowing upon us the mind-boggling, mystifying theory of quantum physics. The more science looked, the more we marvelled at its brilliance and authority.

Contrary to popular notions, modern science, rather than laying to rest belief in God once and for all, has actually invigorated it. The cheerful atheism which characterised much of the twentieth century (at least, as far as Western Europe was concerned), has given way to an aggressive atheism. For it was assumed that with the progress of science and the technological revolution it birthed, faith in cold reason, and in man being the measure of all things, would outgrow faith in God.

For a time, these augries of atheism seemed to be correct. Religion retreated; progress continued. The 19th century English Poet, Mathew Arnold, penned what’s possibly its most memorable imagery when he describes in his Dover Beach the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the retreating ‘Sea of Faith’. Yet as offensive as it was to atheists, by the end few decades of the last century, it was clear the Sea of Faith had returned: the religious tide was roaring back in (many contend that the tide hadn’t really ever gone out).

Although the factors for the persistence of religion are multi-faceted,1 as far as its link to science is concerned it may be whittled down to two reasons. The first is related to what modern science has revealed to us about the quantum or sub-atomic realm. The other has to do with the things science is silent about concerning the Big Questions.

The first. By the 1930s, science had established a new branch of knowledge: quantum physics. This was unlike anything that had preceded it – not even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. For the first time, scientists had encountered an area of the universe which our brains just aren’t wired to understand. Or as Brian Greene stated about quantum physics, ‘it undeniably shows that the universe is founded on principles that, from the standpoint of our day-to-day experience, are bizarre.’2

Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum physics, once remarked that anyone who is not stupified or boggled by quantum physics, hasn’t understood it.

So let’s have a stab at trying to be stupified:

In the quantum world, electrons in atoms jump orbit without travelling the space in between; light particle will pass through two slits simultaneously without actually splitting-up; photons, electrons and other elementary particles “know” when they are being observed or not, and then adjust their behaviour accordingly; pairs of particles fired in opposite directions at near light speed instantly know what the other is doing, even when separated by significant distances; and some elementary particles need to turn, not 360 degrees, but 720 degrees, so as to come “full circle.”

In the quantum world we learn that photons, electrons and other subatomic particles are not actually particles; yet neither are they waves. Instead, they behave as waves, or as particles, depending upon the circumstances. This wave-particle duality allows us to talk about wavelengths of light and light particles: yet they are neither and they are both. (In fact, experiments have been carried out which show that a single photon can behave as a wave and as a particle at the same time.)

In the quantum world, uncertainty (or indeterminacy) rules the roost. Here we may know the path an electron takes through space, or may know where it is at any given instance; but we cannot know both. To be clear, this is not a matter of needing better measuring instruments, it is a built-in feature of the quantum universe. In practice, this means that you can never pin-point where an electron is at any given moment in time. You can only point to the probability of its being there. Put slightly differently, until it is observed, an electron can be regarded as being everywhere and nowhere!3

In what way does this help the religious discourse? Well, Gai Eaton once quipped after listing some of these counter-intuitive, weird quantum oddities: ‘After this, no one has any excuse for obscurities or improbabilities in the higher reaches of theology and metaphysics.’4

In other words, the paradoxes we encounter in Islam’s monotheistic theology – God is transcendent beyond the confines of creation, yet immanent in it; God is omniscient, omnipotent and all good, yet there exists the presence of evil in the world; that human destinies have been pre-decreed, yet we still have free-will and can still choose what to do or not to do; or that being God’s servants demands passive acceptance, while being His vicegerents (khalifahs) requires actively working for social justice and also battling tyranny – should not be that surprising. For if the quantum world defies being pinned down by human language and rationalising, but instead leaves gaps unfilled, mysteries unexplained, and minds perplexed, then moreso the paradoxes related to God and the nature of divinity.

This is not to say Muslim theologians have shyed away from seeking to resolve these paradoxes or to explain them through reasoned arguments. They have been relentless in this task.5 And yet, as fruitful and exacting as the labour has been, our theologians acknowledge that, at bottom line, these are only glimpses into the true nature of God. La tablughuhu’l-awham wa la tudrikuhu’l-afham – ‘Imaginations cannot conceive Him, nor can comprehensions understand Him’ – is what Muslim orthodoxy holds.6 As for the role of reason in religion, I hope to discuss it in a future posting, God-willing.

If science is bugged by quantum quirkiness, it faces other nagging concerns too – in particular, about the bigger picture; the deeper questions. Human consciousness, for example, and what gives rise to it? Why there exists what some term, “the moral law:” an intuitive knowledge about the basic rules of right and wrong shared by all people (our voice of conscience, so to speak)? And then there is the grandest conundrum of them all. Life on Earth aside, how did the universe come into existence, and so finely-tuned in a form hospitable to life?

The fact that these issues cannot, by definition, be tackled by science (for it basis itself on emperical observation, and does not speculate about realities beyond the physical, observable, measurable cosmos), is a significant cause for more and more people, who once erringly put their faith in science to answer the big issues, to recognise its limits. Instead, people are increasingly turning to religion to engage with questions which lie beyond the scope of the scientific method – such as God’s existence, the meaning of life, and why the universe is here; why is there something rather than nothing? For it is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work, while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

1. For an exploration into the reasons behind Religion’s resiliance to secularisation, cf. Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (New York: Continuum, 2005); Wooldridge & Micklethwait, God is Back (London: Penguin, 2010); McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011).

2. The Elegant Universe (Great Britain: Vintage, 2000), 108.

3. A delightful, lively, non-specialist account of the birth, development and weirdness of quantum physics is given in J. Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (Great Britain: Corgi Books, 1988).

4. King of the Castle (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 147.

5. One can see the Muslim theological project at work, with all its attendant theatre, in Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Muslim Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

6. See: The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.8.

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