The Humble I

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Archive for the category “marvels of man”

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: On Science & Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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