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Kalam & the Hanbalis: Is It Really Relevant Today?

Often rendered into English as ‘theology’, ‘ilm al-kalam (or kalam, for short) is the science which establishes and elaborates upon matters of doctrine and belief. Because it depends upon reason-based arguments, it is ‘discursive’: hence ‘ilm al-kalam is sometimes referred to as discursive theology. In its more conjectural or philosophical form – a form where it does not play a supportive role to the textual-based conclusions of the Islamic Revelation, but rather infers positions from its own first principles – ‘ilm al-kalam is often referred to as speculative theology. As for those theologians who are practitioners of kalam, they are called mutakallimun.

This article seeks to address four core issues: [1] The position of kalam in Sunni Islam; [2] the Hanbali position[s] concerning it; [3] its pros, cons and true purpose; [4] its relevance, if any, in today’s intellectually, faith challenging milieu – especially in terms of being able to offer cogent, articulate, Islamically-grounded responses to atheism and scientism.

I

1. Kalam (lit. ‘speech’, ‘discourse’) about God, using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments, found its way into early Muslim thought during the Abbasid period, via Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical legacy; particularly that of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring this philosophical reasoning to bear upon certain theological issues was the Mu‘tazilah. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – that is, to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, on certain theological matters to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. They were known to dismiss, distort or play fast and loose with verses from Revelation or prophetic hadiths, if these didn’t fit in with their Greek-inspired philosophical rationalisations.

2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from such kalam, usually with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous or, according to another reading, close to unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i stated: ‘We are not people of kalam.1 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; for the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’2 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’3 As for Imam Ahmad, his words on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’4 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’5 This latter saying of Imam Ahmad suggests there was some sort of Sunni kalam in vogue, as opposed to the widespread Mu‘tazilite one that the like of the above salaf-reports were apparently addressing, and that ostensibly he seemed to reject even that.

3. In contrast to a large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them which state that kalam is lawful, so long as it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and ijma‘ of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify, or twist them. From them is this saying from al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’6 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’7

4. Imam al-Bayhaqi also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam, for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; and as we have already mentioned.’8

5. The distinction between blameworthy and praiseworthy kalam began to gain traction among the scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent, primarily from the more purist, fideistic Hanbalis/Salafis. This approach ranged from an overall rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.9

6. Those who employed ‘ilm al-kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun stated about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by using rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’10 Of course, even from the pro-kalam viewpoint, there were always individuals who went into excess concerning it, or who sometimes simply lost the actual plot!

7. In asserting what he considered to be the middle ground on the issue of ‘ilm al-kalam, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about it: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11

II

8. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the full story. Whilst there is an absolutist, anti-kalam stance amongst Hanbalis, the historical truth of the matter is that there is a pro-kalam stance too. The anti-kalam sentiment is best exemplified by Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, a pillar of the madhhab, who wrote a scathing tract against delving into any sort of kalam, rebutting the Hanbali polymath Ibn ‘Aqil for having done so. In it he wrote, with the usual characteristic hostility of a purist against kalam: ‘As for him [i.e. Ibn  ‘Aqil], his faction consist of the people of kalam. To speak of them is only to censure them, to warn against them, to cause [people] to flee from associating with them, to order abandoning and shunning them, and to abandon looking into their books.’ He then cites Imam Ahmad, al-Shafi‘i and Abu Yusuf in their rebuke of kalam and then he wrote: ‘And Ahmad b. Ishaq al-Maliki declared: “The people of innovations and [false] desires, in the view of our [Maliki] colleagues, are the people of kalam. So every person of kalam is from the followers of false desires and innovations, be he an Ash‘ari, or not. No testimony of his should be accepted. He should be ostracised and punished for his innovation. And if he persists in it, his repentance should be sought.’12 This anti-kalam stance holds that there simply isn’t anything reliable or decisive from Imam Ahmad on the issue to render lawful the deployment of kalam.

9. As for the pro-kalam stance, Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’13

10. Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih quotes Ibn Abi Ya‘la as asserting that ‘the correct stance in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the opinion of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘14 The ‘affair’ being referred to was the inquisition unleashed against those upon the orthodox belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated Word of God, and his ‘defence’ of it was by using rational-based arguments; in other words, kalam.

11. Now whether Imam Ahmad’s later words abrogate his earlier ones, or whether it’s just a case of contextualising the Imam’s words, is an area of disagreement among pro-kalam Hanbalis. For while a group of them, such as Ibn Abi Ya‘la, held to the view of abrogation, others held to the more preferable view of jam‘; harmonisation. This is the stance which holds that Imam Ahmad employed kalam arguments when he believed there was a need, and refrained from it when he believed there wasn’t. Having cited the above words of Ibn Hamdan, al-Buhuti notes: ‘The statement of Ibn Hamdan is like a harmonisation between the two views [of forbiddance or allowance]; and this is preferable over abrogation. What supports this is the report from al-Marrudhi [that Imam Ahmad said]: “I am not a person of kalam. I do not view kalam in anything except if it be in the Book of Allah, the Hadith of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, or from any of his companions; may Allah be pleased with them, or one of the tabi‘un. As for other than these, then speech concerning it is not praiseworthy.” Related by al-Khallal.’15 In other words, whatever stands in opposition to the conclusions of the Book, the Sunnah, or a salaf-report, even if it appears to be rationally justifiable, is blameworthy.

12. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, his take on kalam and its nomenclature, as involved and highly complicated as it is, is most likely best represented in this passage from him: ‘The point being is that Ahmad would infer by way of rational proofs about propositions concerning Divinity, provided they were sound. What he censured was whatever opposed the Book or Sunnah, speech without knowledge, or speech [with] innovated meanings in the religion (al-kalam al-mubtadi‘ fi’l-din) … He [i.e. Imam Ahmad] was not averse to – if the meanings of the Book or the Sunnah were known – leaving [textual] terms for other terminologies, if a need for this presented itself. In fact, he did this himself. Rather, what he despised were innovated meanings (al-ma‘ani al-mubtadi‘ah) in this – i.e. in [theological issues] people were arguing about, such as [the nature of] the Qur’an; the Beatific Vision, Pre-Destiny or the Divine Attributes – except what conforms to the Book, the Sunnah, or reports from  the sahabah or tabi‘un.16 Ibn Taymiyyah’s point is that using kalam terminology is risky. For while the correct sense of the meanings may be established, such terms all too easily lend themselves to notions that are false, ambiguous, or inappropriate for God; or are at odds with established texts or salaf-reports. His main contention appears to be with the kalam conception of hulul al-hawadith – that contingencies do not indwell in the Divine Essence, and how such an ambiguous turn of phrase, whilst perfectly sound from one angle (that nothing created subsists in God and that God’s attributes aren’t created), is used to negate those acts of God he designates as af’al al-ikhtiyariyyah – “God’s chosen acts:” in that God acts, creates and speaks as He wills, whenever He wills.

13. So what conclusion can we draw about the Hanbali school’s view about ‘ilm al-kalam? Well the obvious one is that the school doesn’t have a single, unified stance. The reason is that the various reports concerning Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal’s attitude towards kalam lead to vastly different conclusions. Undoubtedly, there is his clear condemnation of it; and yet there are words from him that permit it. And then there is his al-Radd ‘ala’l-Jahmiyyah, a slim tract refuting certain innovators; not just with textual proofs, but with rational based arguments to support the textual assertions. Taking all of this into consideration, the later leading Hanbali authorities – particularly those whose manuals, commentaries and super commentaries of fiqh have now become the standard, relied-upon texts for teaching and fatwas over the past six hundred years – tended to adopt the view that ‘ilm al-kalam was lawful and legislated. Its role, however, was not as a discoverer of truths, but as a rational support to those axiomatic creedal truths found in Revelation. Ibn Hamdan’s 7th Islamic century Nihayat al-Mubtadi’in fi Usul al-Din has found widespread acceptance among the cream of Hanbali scholars – such as Ibn Muflih, al-Mardawi, al-Hajjawi, al-Buhuti and al-Safarini – and has been authoritatively cited by them. The same hold for its abridgement, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan, by Ibn Balban in the 11th century.17

III

14. Before discussing how relevant the ‘ilm al-kalam project is for today, let me address its role in the pre-modern Muslim scholastic period, as explained by non other than Imam al-Ghazali. As a sort of epilogue to his Jerusalem Creed, al-Ghazali outlines the pros and cons of kalam, explaining that the Islamic ‘aqidah which Muslims should know is not the same as kalam theology – which is there to support the ‘aqidah and protect it from heresies. He explained: ‘In it there is benefit and harm. As for its benefit, in those situations where it is beneficial it is ruled lawful, recommended or obligatory according to the circumstances. As for its harm, it is forbidden whenever and for whoever it is harmful. Its harms are that it creates doubts and unsettle beliefs, which [then] no longer rest of certitude and resolute conviction. This is something which happens at the outset, and there is no guarantee that he will ever win it back through [rational] proofs; for it differs from person to person. This, then, is its harm to sound beliefs.’18 The believer, yearning above all else to seek the Face of God, will pay this matter much heed.

15. Continuing the theme of kalam’s potential harms, the Imam said: ‘It has another harm, [namely] it hardens the beliefs of the heretics (al-mubtadi‘ah) in their heresy (bid‘ah) and strengthens it in their hearts, in that it riles them up and increases their resolve to persist in it. Such harm, however, arises from bigotry born of argumentation. This is why you see the ordinary, unlearned heretic (al-mubtadi‘a al-‘ammi) quickly dissuaded from his belief through gentleness, unless he has been raised in a place where argumentation or zealotry are rife; in which case if all mankind, from the first to the last, united together to remove it from his heart, they would be unable to. For desire, zealotry and contempt for his rivals or opponents so grip his heart, and thus blinds him to the truth … Such is the fatal disease that plagues cities and people; the sort of corruption caused by partisan disputation. This also is its harm.’19 In light of that, there’s little we can do save to seek Allah’s refuge from our self-serving egos masquerading as truth-seekers!

16. On the benefits of kalam, the Ghazalian insight may come as a surprise to some: ‘As for its benefit, it might be expected that it is to uncover truths and to know them as they truly are. If only that were so! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably confuses and misguides more than it reveals or teaches. If you had heard this from a hadith scholar or hashawi-literalist, you might have thought: “People are an enemy to what they don’t know.” So hear this instead from one highly versed in kalam; who left it after gaining mastery of it; who plunged its depths as far as any theologian can; who then went onto immerse himself in other sciences closely related to kalam, before realising that the path to the realities of gnosis (haqa’iq al-ma‘rifah) was barred from this angle. By my life, kalam theology is not void of revealing, defining or clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about matters that are already evident or that could probably be understood without delving into the art of kalam at all. Rather, it has one single benefit: to guard the common man’s creed that we have just outlined [in the Jerusalem Creed], and protect it by way of argument from the misgivings of heretics. For the common man is weak and can be unsettled by a heretic’s argument, even if corrupt. Yet something corrupt may be rebutted with something [less] corrupt; whereas people are only responsible for the creed we have previously outlined.’20

17. In Muslim Spain, some two centuries after al-Ghazali, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi (a celebrated Maliki jurist, legalist and exegist) felt that he could speak to the role of kalam theology in these terms: ‘As for the heretics, their words mustn’t be related, nor are their arguments to be rehearsed: unless their is a need for it. In which case, one may occupy themselves with rebutting them, just as ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas did when the matter of the Khawarij began to spread. This is what called the leading mutakallimun, such as Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Abu Bakr b. al-Tayyib, and others; may God have mercy upon them, to speak about this when the various heretical sects arouse in their time. But as for our age, God has relieved us of this duty since they [the heretical sects] do not exist; especially in the lands of West Africa and Andalusia. Hence in our time, their views should not be turned to, nor made to cross any heart or ear, because it is harmful, and without any benefit. For the potential benefits of refuting them is meaningless in their absence. For the harms it contains, of falling into the forbidden, opposing the salaf, or darkening the heart, are all present and possible for whoever concerns himself with it.’21 Or to put it another way, Ibn Juzayy is insisting that kalam theology is a medicine that must be administered at the right time, and in the right dosage. In the absence of an illness, there simply is no need to administer a remedy. To do so would be pointless; more than that, might it not actually create an illness where there was none before? What is also worth remembering is that while discursive arguments no doubt have their place, sometimes one just needs to listen to the inner voice of conscience or fitrah in terms of intuiting or feeling the presence of God.

IV

18. This brings us nicely on to our final concern: Does kalam theology have any relevance today? And if so, what? Well obviously we live in an age where false beliefs and heresies abound everywhere, and most Muslims are exposed to them from a very early age. Islands of Andalusian cocoons that Ibn Juzayy spoke of no longer exist. There isn’t a meaningful place called “the Muslim world;” and if there is, it has been so diluted and distorted with alien ideas, ideologies and attitudes so as to render the very idea defunct. Of course, there are individual Muslim minds and hearts that mostly reside in majority Muslim countries and societies. But even if such societies did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, they have been far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on. And this is the deeper concern for any continued, authentic sense of Muslimness. As for Muslims living in the West, in one sense, their faith-based dilemmas are acuter still. And so it must be that every Muslim should acquaint themselves with the sound Islamic creed or ‘aqidah; the correct set of Islamic beliefs each Muslim is mandated by the religion to know and to hold. To assume that just because one is Muslim, that one already knows all this stuff will, in all likelihood, be a blunder of seismic proportion!

19. The best way to do the above is through an intelligent and informed manner. And this is by either embarking upon a very short study of an authoritative ‘aqidah text which has met with continued scholarly approval throughout the centuries, or by reading such an ‘aqidah text by oneself, asking a qualified scholar for any further clarifications one may have. The objective isn’t to become a fully-fledged theologian, or to dive into debates and disputations with other Muslims. But rather to meet our Lord and Maker with sound belief concerning God, His prophets, scripture, pre-decree and faith. The Jerusalem Creed has already been mentioned. An even more accepted text, for layman and scholar alike, is the Tahawiyyah Creed. The idea is to keep it short and simple so as to know as a minimum the beliefs one is personally obliged to know. One just revisits or revises this creed on a yearly basis, in order to keep it all intact or dust any cobwebs off.

20. One highly relevant thing to come out of the kalam project, and of theology in general, is that ‘aqidah has three levels. There’s what can be called [i] Essential ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that are the dividing line between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); beliefs that are indispensable to hold, as well as beliefs one cannot possibly hold, so as to be Muslim. Such beliefs come under the rubric of: al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – ‘things that are known by necessity to be part of the [Islamic] religion’; and about which – unless one is a recent convert, or a Muslim raised outside a Muslim family or society – ignorance brooks no excuse. [ii] Orthodox ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that form a boundary between rightly-guided orthodoxy, and heresy; beliefs that, when one comes to reliably know of them, one is required to accept it. Prior to that, one may be excused for not knowing them. One who rejects such a belief, due to the knowledge not being clear to him, or inaccessible to him, or because it is something beyond what one is reasonably expected to understand, yet he stills holds to Islam’s essential beliefs, is a Muslim – albeit perhaps a heretical Muslim; but Muslim nonetheless. [iii] Personal ‘aqidah: beliefs that theologians legitimately differ over. Such beliefs, regardless if one holds one view or the other; or refrains from taking a position, has no bearing at all on one’s piety, orthodoxy, or ultimate standing with God.22

21. A greater recognition of such distinctions would bring about greater tolerance among Muslims. Teachers of Islamic theology are duty bound to explain that while orthodoxy is doubtlessly the ‘aqidah of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; i.e. what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues speak to the difference between iman and kufr: the rest are matters which other Muslims may disagree with, yet still remain Muslim. Such was the pious caution of our past Imams, that whilst they would have no problem judging a particular belief to be actual disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs clearly warranted it, they would be extremely cautious to the nth degree about making takfir upon a specific individual who held such a belief. Al-Dhahabi relates by way of al-Bayhaqi; who relates from Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi; that Zahir b. Ahmad al-Sarkhasi said: ‘When death came to Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, in my home in Baghdad, he called me and so I came to him, and he said: “Be my witness, I do not declare anyone a disbeliever who prays towards the qibla. For each directs themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all of this [kalam controversy] is but different expressions.”’ Al-Dhahabi then stated: ‘This is my religious view [too]. So too, our shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, who used to say in his last days: “I do not declare anyone of this ummah to be a disbeliever,” and he would relate that the Prophet ﷺ said: “No one but a believer [faithfully] performs ablution”23 [and then say]: “Thus whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim.”‘24

22. After affirming God’s utter perfection and transcendence above every imperfection or need, where kalam theology really comes into its stride is in furnishing us with proofs for what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin) or impossible (mustahil) for God; especially proofs for the necessary existence of God. In its simplest, bare bone form, the kalam cosmological argument goes like this: [i] All that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence. [ii] The universe began to exist. [iii] Therefore the universe must have a cause for its existence. One can rationally infer from the conclusion to the above syllogism that this Cause must be uncaused; omnipotent; possessed of intelligence, knowledge and volition; different to the stuff of the universe; not subject to the material existence of time or space, and therefore immaterial. In other words, this uncaused Cause is God! Eminent Muslim theologians aside, great rational minds in our time continue to uphold the kalam argument for God’s existence, with great philosophical craft and gusto. The most famed of them being Dr. William Lane Craig who defends it from contemporary criticism in his The Kalam Cosmological Argument. If we add to this kalam assertion, evidence from the fine tuning of the universe; and modern cosmology – as in notable works like Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers, Keith Ward’s God, Chance & Necessity, or John C Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? – there are powerful reasons to believe in the God of Abrahamic monotheism, and that science actually points to theism rather than atheism. Given that in today’s world, atheistic philosophies like naturalism and scientism continue to challenge or erode the essential belief of many Muslims, more than do the heresies of the Mu‘tazilah or the Jahmiyyah, such books are far more relevant and needed for a defence of theism, or to shore up one’s personal faith, than are classical works of kalam theology.

23. Since there are some critiques of the kalam argument’s two premises – that everything that came into existence must have a cause for its existence, and that the universe had a beginning – let’s briefly address them. One objection to the first premise asks: What is the proof that every contingent thing needs a cause? Obviously there’s no directly measurable or observable proof when it comes to the universe’s beginning. It’s not like we can create the event again and then watch it. However, it is a rational first principle that something cannot come from nothing: out of nothing, nothing comes. It is a truth that we rationally intuit if we give it some reasoned thought. Moreover, if something can come into being without a cause, then why doesn’t just anything or everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn’t money, MacBooks or Muhammad Ali pop into being out of nothing? Even quantum particles that appear to pop in and out of existence from nothing, actually come from something: a quantum vacuum that is teeming with virtual particles. Again, as we observe the natural world, we see that things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing. We proceed on the well-observed, empirically established basis that things that begin to exist have causes. This conviction lies at the heart of the scientific method. Without it, one couldn’t or just wouldn’t do science! For if things didn’t have causes, why investigate them or try to connect the dots? The second premise has a lot of solid science behind it, in terms of the expanding universe; the Big Bang; or the microwave background radiation left over from it. Scientists feel, that despite certain gaps in their knowledge, or despite things needing to be ironed out in the overall theory (like the arbitrary inflation of the early cosmos, or justifying the current rate of expansion), they are on reliable grounds about the universe coming into existence after not existing. Thus, since both the premises are valid, the conclusion is true: the universe had a cause which needs explaining. Every other inquiry must play second fiddle to this meta question of cause. So while an atheist will have to find fault with this line of reasoning, it would be absolutely untrue to say that theistic belief, such as Islam’s, has no proof or basis; that it’s all just blind faith!

24. To conclude: As intellectual attacks on Islam increase; as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon; and as ever more people seek answers from Islam for a variety of reasons, there is a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted answers – especially in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy and liveable relevancy. Blind imitation of ethnic Islam will become less relevant to people, and even less capable of fulfilling intellectual and spiritual needs. As for well-written dialectical critiques of modernity’s philosophical premises, assumptions and conclusions; or addressing attacks on religion from scientism or other modern, atheistic philosophies, books that come to mind which are well suited to this task include: Gai Eaton’s King of the Castle, Huston Smith’s Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Jonathan Sack’s The Persistence of Faith and Abdal Hakim Murad’s recent Travelling Home. Such works are required reading for this epic duty, in a way scholastic works from pre-modern times obviously are not.

25. In respect to the traditional goals of kalam theology – defining the content of what is and is not faith, demonstrating its harmony with logic and sound reason, and furnishing arguments to  help be personally convinced about it – this is as relevant today as it was in past times. In that spirit and enterprise of classical kalam theology, Muslim theologians in our day and age have a three-fold collective duty (fard kifayah): Firstly, they must continue to establish proofs for the existence of God, in a way that resonates with the contemporary science-shaped mind; using arguments from necessity, design, and fine tuning. Secondly, they must respond to scientism, as it brashly theologises away belief in God, strengthens its totalitarian monopoly on what constitutes knowledge, and elevates presuppositions of naturalism to ultimate truths; without evidential proof. Thirdly, to continue to promote tolerance between Muslims, in terms of what beliefs form the dividing line between belief and disbelief. Let me end with Nuh Keller’s words that ‘one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.’25

And God alone is the Granter of guidance and grace.

1. Quoted in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.

2. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.

3. As per Ibn Qutaybah,Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.

4. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.

5. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.

6. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.

7. ibid.,1:470.

8. ibid.,1:468.

9. The views of the Hanbali scholars, and a birds-eye view of Imam Ahmad’s own stances on ‘ilm al-kalam, is presented in the second section.

10. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.

11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.

12. Tahrim al-Nazr fi Kutub al-Kalam (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutuib, 1990), 41-42.

13. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6.

14. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29.

15. Al-Buhuti, Hawashi al-Iqna‘ (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2004), 1:459-60.

16. Dar’ Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Saudi Arabia: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 7:155.

17. Ibn Balban’s Qala’id al-‘Iqyan was republished in a fine critical edition (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), with a rich and exhaustive commentary. The commentary cites copiously from the likes of the above Hanbali jurist-theologians on each issue. Moreover, an English translation of the text of the Qala’id, with the accompanying Arabic, is given in: J. Starling (tr.), Qala’id al-Iqyan, n.p. 2020.

18. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:354.

19. ibid., 1:354-55.

20. ibid., 1:355-56.

21. Al-Nur al-Mubin fi Qawa‘id ‘Aqa’id al-Din (Tunis: Dar Imam Ibn ‘Arafah, 2015), 111.

22. Refer to my 2013 article, Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules, particularly rules nos.6-10.

23. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22433.

24. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 15:88.

25. Nuh Keller, Islam and Kalam. It is an admirable essay, one from which I have greatly benefitted in writing this article.

Intelligent and Informed Faith is Our Only Option

THE LATE GAI EATON PUT his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he wrote 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 quite some time now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying orthodoxies, 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 (particularly those parts of the globe still referred to 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 of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on.

These assumptions – that Man has now come of age and is the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material and consumer progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have severed us from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that has been the setting for normative human life 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 doubts and disbelief.

If commitment to religious faith and practice is to survive such a deluge, firm 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! However, while less than half a century earlier one could be a decent Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of al-Ghazali, al-Razi or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who does not possess at least some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the faith of Islam is grounded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in some impenetrable bubble of naivety or simplicity.

Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or hell-bent society. If it were possible for those who see the monoculture for what it truly is to withdraw from society and to go their own way in peace, this would probably be a decent course of action (not forgetting that the core of Islam’s call is very much urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows ever more invasive and totalising, suffocating any meaningful dissent; assimilating any significant diversity; and erasing any significant divergence. So driven into a tight corner, religion has little option but to turn and fight. Hence an urgent need to raise the dust of polemics against the ensnaring assumptions of modernity.

1. Reflections (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2012), 85.

2. ibid., 85.

Black Holes, Stephen Hawking, Heaven & Hell

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.

6. Al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqah (Damascus: 1993), 84.

7. See: Bin Bayyah, What of Those to Whom Islam Does Not Reach?

8. Faysal al-Tafriqah, 25.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.4203; Muslim, no.111.

10. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), 68; §.89.

11. Cosmos (New York: Ballentine Books, 2013), 1.

12. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2011), 227.

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

Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [1/2]

dsc_0014As anyone familiar with anti-religious polemics knows, the core criticism by today’s New Atheists is that, allegedly, belief in God is both infantile and irrational. It is, they say, a childish delusion that ought to have died out as humanity reached its maturity. In the New Atheism’s canon, belief in God is likened to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus: as you grow up, you’ll grow out of it. But is belief in God really irrational? Is it so at odds with what Antony Flew (who until quite recently was ‘the world’s most notorious atheist’) calls: the ‘pilgrimage of reason’?1

Traditionally, Muslims have agreed that there are indeed good rational arguments to support the belief in the existence of God. Religion, as Islam teaches, does not require abandoning reason, nor does it instil evading the evidence. Classical Islamic theology demonstrated the “proofs” for God’s existence in two ways. One of these ways is very abstract, demanding a fair degree of intellectual theorising. The other, by comparison, is far more straight forward and intuitive, and is rooted in the simplicity of everyday experience. Moreover, it mirrors the Qur’an’s style of reasoning on the matter.

The first has come to be known as the “argument from contingency – dalil al-huduth.” In Christian natural theology, this proof is called the kalam-cosmological argument. The second proof is akin to the teleological argument (also called the argument from design) in Christian natural theology. Natural theology also offers the ontological and moral arguments; the gists of which are given in the second part of this post. But here in the first of two parts, let’s engage the more abstract proof: the kalam-cosmological argument.

I’ve divided the post into four sections. The first two tackle the issue of what is meant by kalam and its place in Muslim theological discourse. The third explains the actual kalam cosmological argument. The fourth is where some contemporary objections to the argument are addressed:

I

1. The kalam-cosmological argument is so called because its origins lie in the Muslim kalam tradition. Kalam (‘speech’ or ‘discourse’ about God using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments – in other words, discursive theology) found its way into early Muslim thought via the philosophical legacy of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring reason to bear upon certain theological issues were the heterodox Mu‘tazilahs. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, on certain theological conundrums to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. Such enemies of the Sunnah were known to dismiss, distort and play fast and loose with Revelation; if it didn’t fit in with their conjectures, delusions or ego-driven rationalisations.

2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from kalam with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous, or almost unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i averred: ‘We are not people of kalam.2 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; indeed the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’3 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’4 As for Imam Ahmad, his assertions on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; and nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’5 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’6

3. In contrast to the large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them that seem to imply kalam could be allowed, provided it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and the consensus of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify or twist them. From them are these words of al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’7 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’8 He also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam – for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; as we have mentioned.’9

4. The distinction between the blameworthy and praiseworthy type of kalam began to gain traction among scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent from many of the more purist Salafis/Atharis. This purist approach itself ranged from a total rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.10 In asserting the middle ground on the matter, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about employing kalam: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11

5. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the entire story. Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’12 Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih cites Ibn Abi Ya‘la saying that ‘the correct view in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the view of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote, al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah, ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘13 Even then, the Hanbali use of kalam tended to be much more guarded than that of others.

6. Those who employed kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun says about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by utilising rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’14

II

7. Kalam theology has as its cornerstone the concept of “atomism” – that the cosmos is made up of atoms (jawahir, sing. jawhar), bodies (ajsam, sing. jism) and accidents (a‘rad, sing. arad), all of which are contingent (hawadith, sing, hadith) – that is to say, they originate in time. More importantly, the atom – in kalam lingo – is an indivisible particle that occupies space (tatahayyaz); is subject to change (taghayyur); and has no innate power of duration (thubut, baqa’), but endures directly because of God through each moment of its existence. Futhermore, it is not just the atom which is indivisible. Time itself, in kalam atomism, only comes in finite units: it also having no intrinsic ability to endure. Again, it is God’s continuous act of creating these discrete units of time that allows it to actually “flow.”

8. It’s important not to confuse the kalam “atom” with the concept of atom in modern science. What kalam is stressing is that nothing in the cosmos is eternal or infinite. Every thing is contingent and is finite. The smallest, indivisible unit of matter being termed as the “atom” or jawhar. As for modern science, it has shown the tiny atom is divisible; that at its core are even tinier particles called protons and neutrons. These particles, in turn, are made of smaller particles still: quarks. So the kalam atom would, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, be equivalent to quarks (or, if we are to believe the disputed String Theory, to tiny one dimensional entities, “strings”, vibrating in eleven dimensional spacetime). The point is that the kalam atom refers to the smallest, indivisible substance possible; whatever science may call it.

9. Kalam atomism has one chief goal: God’s omnipotence. ‘For it denies, at each point in the duration of anything non-divine, that it has any intrinsic power of existence. God alone has such a power.’15 In other words, nothing endures without God. For the mutakallimun, for that’s what practitioners of kalam were called, the basis of atomism was rooted in both reason and revelation.

10. Reason, and a fair amount of mental theorising, show that the universe has to be finite. The argument runs like this: If you have a sequence of events, each one caused by the event preceding it, stretching way way back in time – can such a sequence be infinite; can it go on forever? An infinity may seem straightforward, but it throws up all sorts of problems. For instance, infinity plus one is still infinity, even though you have added to it. Or, for example, when you take today’s events and combine it with past events, these will increase; without today’s events, they’ll decrease. But increase or decrease in what is infinity is incoherent; irrational, even. So this would seem to suggest that infinities do not exist and that the series of events are finite, temporal, having a beginning. Undoubtedly, mathematical (some call them ‘potential’) infinities do indeed exist. However, physical (or ‘actual’) infinities do not.

11. Revelation, as per the mutakallimun, states this too. And He knows the number of all things, says the Qur’an [72:28] And He created all things and ordained for them a precise measure. [25:2] Thus all things have a finite number and measure. These verses, and others like them, affirm the temporal existence of all things and their finite number. This implies that neither matter nor time are infinitely divisible: they too are of finite sizes.

12. Interestingly, quantum physics posits the quantum of time, or Planck time. This is the smallest measurement of time to have any meaning. It is equal to 10-43 seconds (in other words, that is a number with forty-three zeros after the decimal point). No smaller division of time has any possibility or reality in the physical world, within the framework of physics as understood today. Time less than one Planck time apart can neither be measured and nor can any change be detected.16 The implication here for atomism is certainly worth exploring, although to pursue it here is beyond the paper’s remit and the author’s ability.

13. One final matter. In kalam theology, a thing is either qadim – eternal, timeless; or it is hadith – contingent, coming into existence (wujud) after non-existence (‘adm). All that comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. To put it another way: Every entity that exists, either exists by itself; by its own essence and nature, or it does not exist by itself. If it exists by its own essence, then it exists necessarily and eternally, and explains itself. It cannot not exist. But if an entity exists, but not by its own essence, then it needs a cause outside of itself for its existence. The kalam theologians state that God alone necessarily exists, while all contingent things owe their existence to Him.

III

14. So how does all of this tie in with the cosmological argument for God’s existence? Well, the preamble to the kalam argument may be presented as follows: [i] An actual infinite number does not exist; [ii] therefore the series of causes for the cosmos to be as it is now cannot be infinite in sequence: that is, it must be finite; [iii] therefore the cosmos was brought into existence at some point in the past.

15. The final conclusion in the above argument (that the universe came into existence at some point in the past) not only follows logically from the initial two premises, it also finds support in science. Cosmologists are now certain that the universe actually did have a beginning: the Big Bang. But to be clear, the logical conclusion of the above argument is still valid and true, regardless of the empirical proofs for the Big Bang.

16. From here it’s a short step to teasing out the kalam-cosmological argument (dalil al-huduth), which can be set out thus: [i] Everything that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence; [ii] the universe began to exist; [iii] therefore the universe has a cause for its existence.17 There is an implicit fourth premise, namely: [iv] The cause for the existence of the universe is God.

IV

17. The above argument, as rational as it is, has been critiqued on a few grounds. One objection states that the argument’s premise [i] – everything that begins to exist must have a cause – although intuitively obvious, seems to be false. For quantum physics appears to show that electrons can pass out of existence at one place and re-appear elsewhere. This, as physicist Paul Davies has argued, violates premise [i] and hence the entire argument collapses.18 One reply to this states that although electrons do just that, they can only do so because of what is called a “quantum vacuum.” A vacuum, in quantum physics, isn’t “nothing at all”. It is a state of minimal energy, seething with “virtual particles.”19 It is this vacuum which gives rise to electron fluctuations, says the laws of quantum physics. Which is to say, the vacuum’s existence is the cause for electrons to exist, disappear and re-appear. Premise [i], therefore, still holds.

18. If everything has a cause, runs another objection, then what caused God? To this age old demur, Muslim theologians have repeatedly stressed that God is musabib al-asbab – “the [Uncaused] Causer of all things.” Conventional notions of time and space simply do not apply to God, for: There is nothing like unto Him, says the Qur’an [42:11]. ‘He is preexistent without beginning, eternal without ending,’20 is orthodoxy’s voice. God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud). Though God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. To quote the formulations of Islamic orthodoxy again: ‘The six directions do not contain Him as they do created things.’21 Hence, since the universe is contingent and brought into existence, and contingent things are not capable of generating themselves, theologians inferred that ‘they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha), namely, a deity who is eternal.’22 Moreover, the kalam-cosmological argument states: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. God, however, is beginningless; and so has no cause. ‘As He was in pre-existence possessed of His attributes, so shall He remain throughout all eternity.’23

19. Yet another criticism runs: why does the Uncaused Cause of all things have to be a single Deity? Why not many deities? Here the kalam theologians respond by drawing directly from the Qur’an, to infer from some of its verses “the argument from mutual interference” – dalil al-tamanu‘. Two such Quranic verses are: If there were gods in the heavens and earth, besides God, there would be chaos and disorder. [21:22] And: God has not chosen a son, nor is there a god with Him. For then each god would go away with his own creation, and some would overcome others. [23:91] What these verses tell us is that the existence of multiple gods is a self-evident logical absurdity. The actual argument from mutual hindrance, or interference, goes like this: If there were two deities and they disagreed over a matter, such as one wanting to bring a thing into existence and the other did not want to, then logically, there are only three possibilities: Either the will of both are carried out; or the two wills cancel each other out; or the will of one trumps the will of the other. The first case is an impossibility, as this would imply the existence of two mutual opposites; the second is also ruled out since that implies the thing neither exists nor doesn’t exist. It would also imply deficiencies in their wills and creative acts, and thus disqualify them as being the true Deity. Lastly, if the will of one is victorious, but not that of the other, then only this deity deserves to be God.24 Now whether such logic constitutes a highly persuasive proof that is open to a few fragilities (dalil iqna‘iyyah), or one that is definite and watertight (dalil qat‘iyyah), is the subject of some debate among classical Muslim theologians.25

20. Other concerns have been voiced about the kalam-cosmological argument, which may seem to some like a desperate attempt to clutch at straws. One contention states that since we’ve no experience of the origins of universes, we therefore have nothing to tell us that universes don’t come into existence without a cause. In response to this piece of conjecture it could more reasonably be argued that in our entire experience of the world, and of the cosmos at large, we’ve yet to find anything that exists without a cause. And there is no solid or empirical ground to conclude that the universe is an exception. I’ll wrap up with a more recent criticism of the first premise, from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow who insist that: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’26 But this is a very lacklustre and unsatisfactory answer. For physical laws, by themselves, cannot create anything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which describe what usually happens under any given set of conditions. Furthermore, leave aside the fact that such laws of physics are inferred from real material events, and therefore such laws would be meaningless if they had nothing real to describe, there’s an even more fundamental question to ask here: Who created the law of gravity? Who indeed!

Just how far the kalam cosmological argument ‘proves’ the existence of God is open to discussion. The argument is certainly coherent, logical and decisive as a theological doctrine (thus giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational). Although it rarely seems to be effective at convincing those who do not believe in God that He in fact exists. This is especially so when its premises are highly abstract and theoretical, relying upon only logic and syllogism. A more appealing proof, therefore, comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s instance to reflect on the ‘signs’ of God. These will, God-willing, be taken up in the final part of the blog.

1. Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper One, 2007), 85.

2. Cited in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.

3. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.

4. As per Ibn Qutaybah, Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.

5. See: Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.

6. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.

7. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.

8. ibid., 1:470.

9. ibid., 1:468.

10. The pro-kalam argument is offered in Ghazali, Iljam al-‘Awwam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalam, translated as: A Return To Purity In Creed (Philadelphia: Lampost Productions, 2008). The anti-kalam view is robustly expressed in Ibn Qudamah, Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, translated as: Ibn Qudamah’s Censure of Speculative Theology (England: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1985); and despite his kalam leanings, Ibn al-Jawzi critiques it in Kitab Akhbar al-Sifat, translated as: A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 104-20.

11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.

12. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6. Due to reason having the final say over Revelation, this blameworthy kalam may be rendered into English as: “speculative theology”. As for the kalam where reason is anchored to revealed proof, and so contours and supports it, this may be translated as: “discursive theology”.

13. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29. As for the pro-kalam arguments, they commence on p.226.

14. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.

15. T. Mayer, ‘Theology and Sufism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273.

16. J. Gribbin, Q is for Quantum: Particle Physics from A to Z (London: Phoenix Giant, 1998), 350.

17. For a fuller treatment of the argument, consult: Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 82-85; Juwayni, A Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief (Reading: Garnet, 2000), 19-28; Ayman Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, 204-214; W. L. Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (London: Macmillan, 1979).

18. P. Davies, Superforce (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 200.

19. See: Gribbins, Q is for Quantum, 511.

20. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.5.

21. ibid., §.47.

22. Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism, 92.

23. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, §.14. I have modified the translation here somewhat.

24. Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 3:47.

25. As to just how conclusive or not the argument is, see: al-Maydani, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Dar al-Bayruti, 2005), 32-34.

26. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 227.

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