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Muslim Scholars Must Learn To Be Macro Thinkers

Let me commence with the following: The sixteenth century French essayist and moralist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote in his famous Essays: ‘It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string to tie them together.’ This, I should confess, is what I’ve mainly done here in the following article.

As we Muslims endeavour to navigate the conflicting and faith corroding epistemologies of the secular monoculture, there are a host of micro and macro challenges that confront the religious mind. Some of these contemporary concerns, often the micro masa’il, need fast thinking and rapid responses. Other issues, the macro ones, require macro thinking. Such thinking needs time, reflection, the piecing together of many parts, and setting them in a wider context of meaning. In other words, they demand slow thinking.

While, on the whole, Muslim scholarship must be thanked for its handling of short term, micro issues (the many fatwas, responses and guidance to the Coronavirus pandemic is a good example of this), it has yet to find its stride when it comes to macro issues and long term visions. The current strategy thus far of Western born diaspora Muslims has usually been knee-jerk responses, or simply to fire fight. This must change if we are to thrive, and not just survive a historically unprecedented homogenising of human values by a godless monoculture.

Of course, this does not require that every Muslim scholar must train their academic skill sets towards macro thinking. But it’s probably the case that the more who can do so, the merrier. Nor is it likely to be the case that the majority of scholarly intellects will be suited to macro thinking. For slow, thoughtful, contemplative macro thinking, as with fast, time-constrained micro thinking, is something of an art. Divine providence makes some minds more suited to it than others.

So what are these macro concerns that confront modern Muslimness? Well, they pertain to the bigger questions about God’s agency in the cosmos and the world of matter, and our relationship to Him. They refer to the place or priority of tawhid, Abrahamic monotheism, in a modern world in the grip of angst, ennui and alienation, and of how monotheism can work as humanity’s healing balm. They are about interrogating the deeper intellectual or philosophical forces that have shaped and [de]formed our present. They’re concerned less with the fire fighting issues that come and go as part and parcel of life’s vicissitudes, and more with long term healing and nurturing of the God-given human potential that resides in each one of us. All this is to say, we need less of an atomised, issue-by-issue approach to our modern theological, ethical or fiqhi conundrums, and much more focus on the need to precisely, thoroughly and holistically understand modernity’s meta premises, and how best to redress them; to restore some balance. For if Muslims are to act effectively, and to discern the times they are in clearly and objectively, they must understand what it is that confronts them. In so doing, the following insights and first principles should be kept in the forefront of the engagement:

1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational, inductive or secular methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous exit from modernity’s many contradictions, tyrannies and traumas. And when, as it is wont to do, the monoculture comes around brandishing its sword so as to get us to assent to, say, the universal nature of the Declaration of Human Rights (most of which is relatively unremarkable as ethical declarations go), we could well have little choice but to say – in the interest of fostering peaceful coexistence rather than coercion or conflict: To you, your religion; and to me, mine. [Q.109:6]

2 – While the monoculture still argues about whether it is modern or postmodern, there is no denying that it is a world utterly strange and alien to anything and everything that has come before. It may once have prided itself on being the fruits of a revered Enlightenment rationality. But it now widely holds that we’re guided more by selfish genes, manipulative corporations, and unconscious psychological biases than we ever were, and could be, by reason. And although Man, not God, is still believed to be the measure of all things, it has more and more allowed irrational impulses, not rational thought, to be sovereign over the soul. While it still upholds the Enlightenment’s ideology of human progress, replacing the monotheistic idea of human salvation, whatever good such a progress did birth continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism gnawing away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. The monoculture’s chief value is the inviolable liberty of personal ‘will’ (read: ‘desire’): the right to decide for ourselves what we will/desire to believe, want, own or serve. The will is king, and is constrained by nothing greater than itself. And while in Islam, desires and rights do have their open spaces and green pastures, the Qur’an speaks more so in terms of constraints and duties. Likewise in Islam, though humans are seen as servants or slaves of God, their existence and life is not meant to be slavish. Instead, they are seen as self-determining free agents, endowed with reason and gifted with Revelation, enabling them to pursue ends that are good or beneficial for themselves and for their self-fulfillment. For the monoculture, however, it is choice itself, and not what is chosen, that is the first and greatest good. It believes in the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power, let alone the right, to order our desires towards any higher end. If this is understood, and its consequences even half-perceived, it should come as no surprise that society as a whole is in a tragic grip of ontological loneliness; a descent into nihilism and existential despair.1 For what other than angst, despair and a descent into the worst excesses of unredeemed hedonism could come from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic fluke; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless? Such, then, is modernity’s context: it must never become our excuse – as Dr Sherman Jackson insists.

That said:

3 – We, as believers, cannot merely be armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or curse, or be angry; forever raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time, an act at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of in a state of tumaninah; inner calm, then in all likelihood this Agitated Islam is animated by the ego (nafs), not the Spirit (ruh). True religious observance must beget tranquility, even in the midst of turbulence: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28] And: He it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. [Q.48:4] So if not revenge-filled, rage-driven reactions, then what? Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. … Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’2 That is to say, we are to be healers with humbleness. Murad again: ‘The monoculture multiplies matter, and cannot discern spirit; and Islam, the great global dissident, is called upon to heal the consequence.’3 Islam’s monotheism exhorts that we be part of society, yet apart from society; that we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Abrahamic monotheism has always been very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.

4 – The Holy Qur’an frequently speaks about the virtue of service to others. In one place, it extols the believers as those who lived their lives in the service of others: unassumingly, without fanfare, or desire for reward or recognition; rather out of their hearts overflowing with sincere compassion and concern for human welfare: And they fed, for the love of God, the needy, the orphan, and the captive; saying: ‘We feed you for the sake of God. No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.’ [Q.76:8-9] The Qur’an also says: We have honoured the children of Adam. [Q.17:70]. That being so, Islam reckons it as an affront to this God-given dignity of the human person if they are denied life’s basics. Like Islam, secular humanism valorises the human creature too. Unlike Islam, such humanism has done away with God and the sacred and has put the human subject on a deified pedestal. Humanism has done away with service for the love of God, and replaced it with service for the love of man. And concern for human welfare for God’s sake (lit. yearning ‘for the face of God’) has now been secularised and decoupled from as much connection to any divine purpose or traditional morality as possible. For most secular humanists, whatever little Religion does have going for it, ultimately, and on the whole, it is an obstacle to true human self-fulfillment. What now counts for most people, including an increasing number of religious followers, isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be ‘good’ people, and agree to the secular decencies of our age.4 The further people have drifted away from God’s revealed truths, the greater the temptation becomes to water down the truth, glossing over its more rigorous aspects that modern secular sensitivities find unpalatable. So divine Judgement becomes a myth, hell a wicked superstition, prayer less important than decent behaviour, and sins and their upshot less relevant than social activism or caring for others. We Muslims, then, ought to beware of not going down the road that others have unconsciously and unguardedly gone down; mixing sacred values with secular humanistic faith. The prophets of God, peace be upon them, weren’t mere ethicists. Once the prophetic concern is represented as primarily being about welfare, or social justice; rather than with sin, salvation and preparation for eternity, then aren’t feet already on a slippery slope?

5 – Turning to the question of religion and science, what are the bigger, underlying meta precepts that modern science raises against Muslim theology and practice? Well first, let’s recall that science entails the rational examination of evidences: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis from the data; doing experiments to test the ideas; working out a theory to account for the results; then making predictions based on that theory. Two attitudes taint modern science, making it appear science points to atheism rather than to theism: naturalism and scientism. Naturalism – the claim that nature is all that there is, and that there is no supernatural or divine realm – is a philosophy 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 one be so adamant that the natural order is all there is? As for the belief that science is the only path to know objective truth and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, this is known (pejoratively) as Scientism. In many ways, the evidence for it is even more pitifull than for naturalism. And as has been pointed out often enough, scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it is a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Hence, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true! Dawkins has a maxim he is fond of using in this regard (and one he usually aims squarely at theists). He says: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’5 Yet this maxim is more applicable to him, and to the naturalism and scientism he so aggressively upholds, than it does to the theology of Islam (or Jewish or Christian theology, for that matter).

6 – To be perfectly clear, it’s not a case of micro thinking versus macro thinking. We need both. Just as fiqh issues need detailed fatwas and responses, something similar holds for science-religion concerns too. It is important to have intelligent, scripture-based answers to claims like: ‘natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence’ (Dawkins); or that: the universe came from a quantum vacuum, which is nothing, hence the universe came from nothing (Krauss); and: ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing’ (Hawking). But the meta question of existence is not about how it is that the universe (or human life) came about from causes already internal to it – the fact of the matter is is that a quantum vacuum isn’t nothing, it is something; and laws of physics themselves do not create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls: it is not laws that create or move things; it is an agent or person that does that; and natural selection only occurs with stuff that is already present: for even the simplest of life forms must first of all be – but how it is that anything (including a cause) exists at all. For nothing contingent within the universe (nor even the universe itself) can be rationally conceived as the explanation or source of its own being. A contingent thing’s essence (what it is), fails to account for its existence (that it is). Islamic theology, though, has a rich, coherent intellectual tradition to account for the existence of contingent things (things that, prior to their existence, didn’t exist). Muslim theologians hold that since the universe is contingent, and contingent things aren’t able to generate themselves, that they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha); namely, a deity [God] who is eternal, and whose existence is inseparable from his essence. That is, God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud); and although God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. The meta question, then, is this: Which assumption does science support: atheism or theism? That is, does science – with its question of why there is something instead of nothing, or why the universe is so finely-tuned for the emergence of sentient life – best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, totally random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might know Him, discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and realise His purpose for us? That’s the real meta question.

7 – My last issue in the religion-science arena concerns God’s agency in the universe, and the issue of cause and effect. Some mistakenly believe that God created the cosmos ‘in the beginning’ and it has existed on its own ever since. Merely because there is a universe, or a world full of creatures, there is no rational or scientific guarantee that it will persist for another instance. Rather, God alone directly creates and sustains the universe at each and every instant; it exists and endures only by God’s will and creative act. God, the Creator, is continuously creating. The idea that the universe isn’t a sufficient cause to explain its own presence, and that it must be made present, ab extra, at every point in its duration, leads to the doctrine of Occasionalism. This is the view which states that created things cannot be the cause of events. Instead, all events are taken to be caused directly by God. In other words, nothing that occurs is due to natural causes or the operation of scientific laws, and that apparent causal relations between events simply prompt God with the occasion to see to it that certain acts will usually be followed by others. For no contingent thing has the intrinsic ability to benefit, harm or cause an effect. Only God has such power and ability. This is what is meant by: la hawla wa la quwwata illa bi’Llah – ‘There is no might, nor power, except with God. Hence, according to this mainstream Muslim theological stance, fire doesn’t have any intrinsic property to burn. Rather, when a flammable object is placed near fire, at that very instant God causes the object to combust and burn. Likewise, it isn’t water that quenches, or food that satiates, or a knife that cuts. Rather it is God who causes the effect at the precise moment that the water, food, or knife is used. That there appears to be uniformity in the laws of science, and causal relationships between certain things and others, is just that: appearances. It is a necessary illusion; a veil, behind which lies the Source of all being, namely God. At the deeper level, it is God creating and recreating at every instance.6 A core part of Islamic spirituality is to see the af‘al al-rabb, the divine acts, behind such veils. As counterintuitive as this can all sound, quantum physics seems to support the idea that causality isn’t rigidly fixed into the nature of things. Over the past decade, experiments in quantum causality have been carried out which seem to confirm that the quantum realm allows events to occur with no definite causal order. While this is all very exciting for technologies such as quantum computers and communications, what it means for the materialist creed will have to wait. It is still early days. Islamic theology will hopefully, though, have significant things to say on the matter.

8 – Language is a uniquely human gift, and is central to our experience of being human. Language doesn’t just help express our thoughts and ideas, it profoundly effects the way we think and see the world too. It can also be used to manipulate the way we think, as it did with ‘Newspeak’ in the grim, dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four. So if for no other reason than this, we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is expected to bow or pay homage. Currently, Western Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without critical assessment. So we now speak of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff; powerless to break free of the intellectual confines such concepts can keep us caged in.7

9 – What holds for the social sciences should be more so the case for political science and securitisation studies. Here, we should jettison vague and imprecise terms like Islamism, jihadi/jihadist or takfiri/takfirism where possible. Such unhelpful taxonomies aren’t really the fruits of any lexical, academic rigour. Instead, such semantics seem to be pejoratively used to denote the activities or policies of some Muslims that are held as an anathema to Western sensitivities. Takfir, for instance, is a normative theological act in Islam, accepted by every Muslim sect, designating the act of stepping beyond the pale of the religion and thus being expelled from the fold of Islam. The jihadi, a term now deployed for a terrorist claiming Muslim motivation, is another example of obfuscation. To use this, and the term jihad, as synonyms for Muslim acts of terror is to completely ignore Muslim juristic norms which classically employs the label irhabah for such atrocities; reserving jihad for a very different military activity, strictly guided by jus in bello rules that forbids the targeting of civilians. As for Islamism, used to mean the ideology which commends implementation of Islamic legal norms by the state, this would be laughable, if it wasn’t so serious in its geo-political consequences. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has pointed out, Morrocco, whose monarch bears the caliphal title of “Commander of the Faithful,” and which declares that it applies a variant of the shari‘ah, is not described as Islamist by most Western politicos, academics, or journalists. Nor, even more strikingly, is Saudi Arabia described as such by those who currently infest the security industry. And yet Turkey, we are assured, is meant to be in the soft grip of Islamism; despite the fact that its President hasn’t enacted a single shari‘ah law!8 All this is to emphasise that we must interrogate language, labels, terms and taxonomies, if we are to remain faithful to revealed truths and authentically live out God’s intent behind them; and if we wish not to be played by Muslim/non-Muslim states and their security apparatus, using terrorism as an excuse for all sorts of irreligious and authoritarian measures.

10 – This brings me to my last quibble, as it were. If Muslim students or scholars of Islam’s sacred sciences are to become macro thinkers for the love of God; if we are to produce men or women able to effectively articulate and engage their learning in today’s complex age, we need to place far more importance on creating institutes of higher learning fit for such a lofty, lordly, rabbani purpose. ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,’ wrote Francis Bacon. Islamic pedagogy must be rooted in reading widely, exploring different territories in literature; conferring and questioning, especially with those more grounded; and quality writing, which compels the writer to search their mind, dictionary or thesaurus for the best words to express one’s ideas or deliberations, allowing them to be refined and re-refined – academically, semantically and aesthetically. Currently our madrasahs or institutions of higher learning are either too narrow in their adherence to traditional Islam, or else overly secular. For what are we to make of a dars-e-nizami type curriculum which instils in the student the core ‘ulum, in line with a well-bred medieval madrasah canon, but continues to fail to equip the talib with the necessary tools to apprehend, engage or address the intellectual challenges modernity poses? Thankfully, though, there are a few institutions beginning to bridge this pedagogical chasm. Of these few, Britain’s Cambridge Muslim College, under the esteemed leadership of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, is potentially the best of them. In all likelihood, it is the world’s premiere Muslim institution in this regard. Not to reinvent the wheel, the College takes graduates from the recognised, traditional ‘alimiyyah courses, and puts them through its “finishing school,” so to speak. One of the stated aims of CMC is to ‘enable students to understand and engage with contemporary debates about the role of religion in general, and Islam in particular, in modern society.’ As with other unique enterprises that are a class unto their own, wider awareness of CMC and its potential is an issue, as is the age-old concern for support and funding. To not support such an institution in whatever way possible would surely count as a dereliction of Western Muslim duty, as well as an indictment of sorts on the current state of modern Muslimness. While academia is not every Muslim’s cup of tea, the concern for Islam to meaningfully flourish in modernity surely must be!

Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; while Britain’s Christian heritage has seemed long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. The Christian Church, it has been argued failed, less because a fashionable secularism was set against it, but because the Church itself gradually imbued the errors of the age. Had it, as Gai Eaton once so poetically put it, not swapped a policy of ease or facilitation for one of compromise; had it not reduced the price of its goods in the forlorn hope that people with more pressing concerns might show even a slight interest; had it offered a real alternative, a rock firmly planted from the very start, the public might even have been prepared to pay a high price. ‘It is even possible, had the priest turned his back upon them, attending to only the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him, knelt down – looking where he looks – and forgotten all their cares and their troubles. It might be said that the basic command of religion is not “Do this!” or “Do not do that!”, but simply “Look!” The rest follows.’9

Surely, then, in where others have gone, and in how good intentions went steadily astray, there is something for us Muslims to learn.

Thus it is that Islam, more than ever, seems to be called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its message of hope and healing will only illuminate these bewildering times if its theological concerns are firmly-grounded, yet are in tune with the needs of the time; and if it can offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and if it can practically deliver liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. This all needs slow, cool headed, measured macro thinking; and macro thinking, in turn, requires that we not get caught up in the moment, but rather take a step back to get a clearer view of the trends and trajectory that are unfolding.

Whilst we try to heal this scarred world an act at a time, I believe that we must, however, be realists. In realistic terms, and to a certain degree, we have to live in the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Moreover, we participate in the healing not to court secular humanism, but for the love of God and for the love of what people have the potential to be. It has to always be about God, and healing for the sake of God. For whatever else we may do with the time we’ve each been given by Heaven, yearning for the Face of God must take over our life.

We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq; for ease and for grace.

1. See: D.B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), 21-22.

2. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.

3. ibid., 172.

4. The point is taken up in context of humanism, Christianity, and the Church of England, in E. Norman, Secularisation (London & New York: Continuum, 2002), 1-9.

5. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.

6. This Ash‘ari view on occasionalism and the nature of causes and effects (al-asbab wa’l-musabbabat) is teased out in: Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273-74; A. Hussain, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2016), 260-67. A highly useful and colourful explanation of it is given in Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1994), 242-43. Ibn Taymiyyah held that effects occur via secondary causes created by God. So, for instance, cotton burns by (bi) a potency God creates in fire; not by God directly at the moment (‘inda) the two are conjoined. Secondary causes, he clarifies, have no causal autonomy from God. They have no efficacy in themselves to cause effects. God is the causer of all effects. See: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 8:520; 534. Ibn Taymiyya’s view seems to shy away from explaining why such secondary causes are required in the first place, and how they function or differ from God’s direct intervention. The Taymiyyan view is fleshed out in J. Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 156-65.

7. On the relationship between language, power and epistemic sovereignty, cf. W. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 12-13; 61-63.

8. As per the video lecture: How Islamic is “Islamic Studies”? His discussion on the terms, which I mirror above, starts at 40:27.

9. G. Eaton, King of the Castle: Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 17-18.

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